On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, 97-6-775-I.
Before Judges Baime, Wallace, Jr. and Lintner.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baime, P.J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Defendant appeals from a conviction for murder (N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(1)). The principal question presented concerns the admissibility of prior acts of domestic abuse which were considered by the prosecution's psychiatric expert in rejecting defendant's claim of diminished capacity. We hold that this evidence was properly admitted to rebut the defense's assertion that defendant was suffering from dissociative amnesia at the time of the killing.
On the morning of April 18, 1997, defendant stabbed and killed Dorothy Nicholson, his female companion of fifteen years. The incident occurred in the basement of the couple's house, and was witnessed by defendant's nine year old son, Derrick. From the top of the stairway, Derrick observed defendant choke and stomp the victim as she lay on the basement floor. As Derrick watched, defendant retrieved a knife from the kitchen, returned to the basement and stabbed Nicholson three times.
Defendant then drove Derrick to the home of Ethel Mae Coleman, a family friend, where he confessed that he had "hurt [Nicholson] bad." Defendant urged Coleman to drive to his house and "check" Nicholson's condition. According to Coleman, defendant appeared "nervous" and "angry," and was "rambling" his sentences.
Defendant left Coleman's house and walked across the street to the apartment of his friend, Frank Alston. Defendant told Alston that he had "stabbed" and "stomped" Nicholson. After telephoning the hospital, defendant reported to Alston that Nicholson was "very bad off." Defendant then changed into Alston's clothes, placing his own in a bag near the front door.
Meanwhile, Coleman had arrived at defendant's house. The police had already been summoned. Coleman directed the investigating officers to Alston's apartment. Upon his arrest, defendant appeared "remorseful" and "concerned" about Nicholson's condition. While being transported to police headquarters, defendant asserted that he did not know "what happened." After being apprised of his constitutional rights, defendant acknowledged that he had stabbed Nicholson.
At the police station, defendant was again advised of his constitutional rights. According to Investigator Andrea Craparotta, defendant appeared "calm" and "cooperative." Defendant's confession was tape-recorded. In his statement, defendant recounted that he and Nicholson had argued about money during the hours preceding the killing. Defendant asserted that he became angry after Nicholson struck him in the groin. Defendant recalled punching Nicholson in the face and throwing her to the basement floor where he repeatedly struck her. Defendant was unsure of where he had obtained the knife, which he described as having a black handle and serrated edges. Although defendant could not recall how many times he stabbed the victim, he was nevertheless able to describe several of the details surrounding the incident. He remembered, for example, that he had stabbed Nicholson in the stomach or chest, that he had left the knife in the basement, that the blade might have been broken, and that the victim was lying on her back, face up, on the basement floor. He also recalled the events that immediately followed the killing, including his visits to Coleman's and Alston's residences.
At trial, defendant's expert in psychiatry, Dr. John Verdon, testified that defendant was suffering from dissociative amnesia at the time of the killing. The witness defined that condition as "a splitting off of significant thinking processes," including memory, . . . perception and consciousness." The "major" symptom of the disease was said to be a "lack of recall for a specific time frame of significant or personal events." Verdon explained that dissociative disorders are "episodic." While acknowledging that defendant had engaged in earlier acts of domestic violence, Verdon believed that these incidents were attributable to alcoholism, not dissociative amnesia. According to Verdon, defendant's fatal attack on Nicholson was his first episode of dissociative disorder. In reaching this conclusion, Verdon cited defendant's statement that he was in a "dream . . . state" while in jail following the incident, his confusion concerning various details, and his "nonsensical act" in driving Derrick to Coleman's house after the killing. Verdon concluded that defendant did not have the capacity to harbor the requisite mens rea when he stabbed Nicholson to death.
The prosecution's expert, Dr. Steven Simring, painted a much different picture of defendant's mental state. Simring testified that the evidence did not support Verdon's diagnosis of dissociative disorder because defendant had provided the police with a coherent and logical description of the killing. Simring criticized Verdon's failure to take into account defendant's long history of engaging in domestic violence. According to Simring, the cycle of domestic violence involves alternating phases of abuse and "honeymoon period[s]." The witness explained that after obtaining the victim's forgiveness, tension builds, resulting in another act of abuse. ...