On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County.
Before Judges Pressler, Conley and Wallace.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pressler, P.j.a.d.
This is a capital case in which defendant Scott Baker was found guilty of both purposefully and knowingly causing serious bodily injury resulting in death while demonstrating reckless indifference, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(1) and (2), and felony murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(3), as well as other related crimes. Because of the extraordinary and untoward events that followed the Conclusion of the guilt-phase trial- - - -events that involved prosecutorial misconduct found by the Judge to have substantially prejudiced defendant's right to a fair penalty-phase trial- - - -the Judge, on defendant's application, entered an order precluding a penalty-phase trial and thereby, in effect, depriving the Prosecutor of the further opportunity to seek the death penalty. The guilty verdict was not, however, affected. The State appeals from the preclusion order, and we affirm.
This is what happened. The capital charges against defendant were based on his participation in a robbery of the elderly victim, Beatrice Baskin, in her home and his conduct in allegedly stabbing her to death. There was no physical evidence linking defendant to the crime. The State's case rested upon the testimony of defendant's alleged confederates in the robbery scheme, Scott Barnes and Eric Lewis, who had entered into plea agreements with the State and who testified that defendant had wielded the knife that had inflicted the fatal wounds. The trial lasted six weeks, and the jury deliberated for four days before returning its verdict finding defendant guilty of all charges. The verdict was returned on July 8, 1997. The jury was not discharged since it was to proceed with the penalty phase on July 15.
On July 10, 1997, an article appeared in the local newspaper reporting the substance of the jury's guilt deliberations. The article began as follows:
It was all there in black and white after a jury convicted Scott Baker of murdering Beatrice Baskin.
The jurors made a list, with two columns on it. They left it in the jury room.
They wrote down many reasons for convicting Baker, 25, of stabbing the 75-year-old Brick Township woman to death while robbing her.
High on the list was testimony of Scott Barnes, 25, formerly of Manchester Township, who said he drove Baker to Baskin's house so he could rob her the night she was killed.
And they wrote down two reasons for acquitting him: Eric Lewis, the ineffective state's witness, and the lack of physical evidence linking Baker to the killing.
On July 11, 1997, the date that had been set for a pre-penalty phase conference, Judge Turnbach advised counsel that he was conducting an inquiry to determine how the press had obtained access to the jury material, material that he described as "records prepared by the jury, lists setting forth the manner in which its deliberations had proceeded and the manner in which they arrived at the Conclusion that they arrived at." On July 15, the Judge reported the results of his inquiry and granted defendant's motion for a mistrial that had been made in the interim. In sum, the Judge was satisfied that the County Prosecutor had seen the jury material in the jury room and had reported the content of this material to the press. *fn1 These, in part, are the Judge's findings and Conclusions:
At this point I must and will address the legal ramifications of the issue that have caused defense counsel's application and the prosecutor's response thereto. It is necessary that the record reflect same and that the public understands what is occurring here. ....
In the usual course of events, the next part of the trial would be what is commonly referred to as the penalty phase, a phase about which I will have more to say ...