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State v. Chippero

June 30, 2000

STATE OF NEW JERSEY,
PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
V.
RICHARD J. CHIPPERO,
DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stein, J.

Argued March 28, 2000

On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

This appeal concerns the admissibility of defendant's confession to, among other crimes, murder and aggravated sexual assault. Defendant sought to suppress the confession because he was arrested without probable cause, as the State acknowledged. The trial court admitted the confession because it found that the police obtained information during the interrogation, but prior to the confession, that gave them probable cause to continue interrogating defendant. The Appellate Division affirmed the admissibility of the confession but disagreed with the trial court's reasoning, holding instead that the confession was admissible because the nine-hour interrogation of defendant purged the taint of the illegal arrest. We reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division and remand the matter for retrial.

I.

On July 23, 1991, Ermina Ross Tocci was found dead in her North Brunswick mobile home by her longtime live-in boyfriend, John Simmons. Tocci had been stabbed in the neck and raped. Simmons and Tocci's brother, Anthony Tocci, initially were considered suspects. Simmons was interviewed the evening of the murder. He told police that he stopped at Tocci's mobile home around lunchtime the day of the murder and did not return there until after nine o'clock that evening.

On July 25 Kevin McMenemy, a former neighbor of Tocci, contacted the North Brunswick police. McMenemy told police that on the day of the murder he drove to pick up his daughter at her mobile home that was located near Tocci's. McMenemy stated that at 2:39 p.m. that day, while waiting for his daughter, he observed a man walk quickly from alongside the victim's mobile home into the immediately adjacent mobile home, the home of defendant. McMenemy saw perspiration, but no blood, on the man's shirt.

That same day, based on the information from McMenemy, North Brunswick detectives and the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office received and executed a search warrant for defendant's mobile home. Defendant's grandmother let the detectives in. His brother told them that defendant was fishing. While some detectives searched defendant's residence, others went to find defendant, including Middlesex County Investigator Charles Clark and Lieutenant Frank Mozgai of the North Brunswick Police Department.

The detectives found defendant at nearby Farrington Lake. One detective approached defendant and identified himself as a police officer. When the officer approached him, defendant acknowledged that he was Richard Chippero and immediately stated that he had a fishing license. Defendant was then patted down, handcuffed, and transported to the prosecutor's office. On the way there, he expressed concern about his bicycle and fishing gear. At 1:59 p.m., defendant waived his Miranda rights, signing the Miranda card as "Reverend Richard J. Chippero."

The facts following defendant's arrest and interrogation are disputed. Defendant told experts who examined him and opined about the voluntariness of his confession that the ensuing interrogation was an extremely stressful event. Consistent with the police officers' account of the interrogation, one expert opined that defendant "underwent significant psychological alterations during the interrogation." Contrary to the officers' accounts, however, defendant told defense experts that he asked for a lawyer, that he requested that the officers terminate the interrogation, and that he was given extra doses of his own Valium during the interrogation. One expert summarized defendant's recollection of the interrogation as follows:

Mr. Chippero describes his emotional condition over the course of the interrogation as first hostile to the idea of being taken in handcuffs for the interrogation; to becoming greatly distressed in response to the building pressures of an accusatory interrogation which included false evidence claims; to fear as he considered fleeing or attempting to leave the interrogation and as he imagined the police killing him if he even stood up. Following this growing stress and distress, Mr. Chippero draws a blank. He relates that he is unable to remember anything about the last portion of the interrogation, the part that culminated in the recorded statement. He simply has no recall of making the statements memorialized on tape.

The State's account of the interrogation is quite different. At the outset, two armed police officers and an investigator participated in the interrogation. At approximately 3:30 p.m., one of the officers left, leaving North Brunswick Sergeant Ruvolo and Investigator Charles Clark. Lieutenant Mozgai took over the interrogation of defendant later in the evening and Detective Clark stepped out. Each officer testified about his interrogation of defendant, but no recording was made, and Sergeant Ruvolo, the only officer who participated in the entire interrogation, was not produced at trial because he had retired and moved to Florida.

Detective Clark described the first three hours of the interrogation as a light conversation about issues such as defendant's "Reverend status," cooking, and what defendant had been doing in recent days. He said defendant was oriented to time and place and that he never requested an attorney or to speak with family members. Defendant and one of the officers smoked cigarettes throughout this period. The information the officers received from defendant during the first three hours of the interrogation was "unremarkable."

At approximately 5:00 p.m., three hours after the beginning of the interrogation, Detective Clark asked defendant why his fingerprints were found in the victim's trailer. Defendant repeatedly denied that he had been in the trailer. After being asked a third time - and with Clark staring at him - defendant stated that a week earlier he had accepted the invitation of "Rose," the victim, to come into her house. Clark testified that that statement was significant because Clark had not previously named the victim, because defendant changed his story by admitting that he was in the trailer, and because Clark had been told that very few people ever visited the victim's trailer. Clark eventually challenged defendant's story and accused him of lying.

According to Clark, defendant admitted he had been in the trailer the morning of the murder and then began to sob. Defendant allegedly told Clark that he approached the victim while she was outside watering her flowers, that she invited him inside and offered him a soda, that he discussed religion with the victim and used the bathroom, and that he then left the trailer. When Clark again accused him of lying, defendant again changed his story, this time admitting that he was in the victim's trailer the afternoon of the murder, apparently after Simmons' lunchtime visit. Clark again accused defendant of lying, and defendant then "just looked at [Clark] for a while and put his head down again." Between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m., defendant was allowed to use the restroom under the supervision of police officers.

After 6:00 p.m., over four hours into the interrogation, Clark confronted defendant with the statement of McMenemy. Defendant denied that he ran from the victim's trailer into his own. According to Clark, he also confronted defendant with information he obtained from investigators who returned from canvassing the victim's and defendant's neighborhood. Specifically, Clark told defendant that the investigators learned that on the evening of the murder defendant told a neighbor that the victim was found lying in a pool of blood, dead from stab wounds. Defendant claimed to have heard that information from someone in his driveway.

At approximately 8:30 p.m. - about six-and-a-half hours into the interrogation - Clark stared at defendant "for a minute," stood up, and "hollered . . . that he was hiding behind his Reverend status; that only God forgives sinners and not liars." Clark then "stormed out the door and slammed it." Soon thereafter, defendant was given dinner - two hamburgers, french fries, and a soda from a fast-food restaurant. With dinner over, Clark left the interrogation room, and Sergeant Ruvolo and Lieutenant Frank Mozgai of the North Brunswick Police Department resumed the interrogation of defendant.

According to Mozgai, he and defendant "stared at one another for a good portion of time." Mozgai was familiar with defendant's mental health history. Ruvolo and Mozgai noted that they had sons that were defendant's age and Mozgai told defendant that "people don't like to tell lies but sometimes they do." While Mozgai was interrogating defendant, defendant was at times "weeping" and at other times engaged in "normal conversation." When asked to describe the events leading up to the confession, Mozgai answered as follows:

We were in the area of his history of family problems in life and the lifestyle that he was raised in, how this probably, you know, had an effect on where he was in life today, the trouble he's gone through, you know, the institutions he's been in. Things like that. And he seemed to be crying and weeping more so at this point than prior contact that I was with him [sic] and that, you know, we're trying to impress upon him, Rich, you just can't carry this with you. This is a heavy thing to carry for the rest of your life, you know, and it's a heavy way to go through life because you're going to live a miserable life probably. That's a lot of weight, you know, for a guy like you to carry. You know, we're telling him basically we don't believe him. We believe he did it, you know, and we should get it over with tonight. Get it over with tonight. Everybody was of the same opinion . . . . [I]t seemed like his concern was that he didn't want to go to jail. And we told him we understood that. We understood that he didn't want to go to jail. Nobody really wants to go to jail.

We told him, you know, he would probably need psychiatric help from what we can see in your past history and I agreed that he had a track record in that area of where he has psychological type problems and he was saying that he wants to go to a hospital instead of jail ...


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