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State v. Cruz

April 09, 2002

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
LUIS A. CRUZ, JR., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

The issue raised in this appeal is whether a defendant can be retried on a charge of capital murder if the first trial jury is unable to reach a unanimous verdict on the murder count.

On December 11, 1995, seventy-four-year old Santina Leonardi, the owner of a combination convenience store and home in Woolwich Township, was found dead on the floor of her store by her granddaughter. Mrs. Leonardi had been beaten about the head and face and stabbed fourteen times. A broken knife blade was embedded in Mrs. Leonardi's chest. Thirteen of the fourteen stab wounds penetrated the heart and major blood vessels surrounding the heart.

The Gloucester County Prosecutor's homicide investigation eventually focused on Luis A. Cruz, Jr. In a telephone conversation that was monitored, a co-defendant, Jorge Pinto-Rivera, asked Cruz the name of the woman he had murdered. Cruz responded by naming the decedent, Mrs. Leonardi. Cruz also said that he was alone when he committed the murder. Based on that evidence, Cruz was arrested and charged with murder.

Cruz made a taped statement confessing to the murder, claiming that an unspecified person had threatened to shoot him if he did not steal the deed to Mrs. Leonardi's house. Cruz said that he and Pinto-Rivera went to the store after it was closed to rob the deed, and that in the course of the robbery Pinto-Rivera knocked Mrs. Leonardi to the floor. Cruz admitted to stabbing Mrs. Leonardi because she knew him and could identify him. However, he claimed that he stabbed Mrs. Leonardi only twice, and that after leaving the store, Pinto-Rivera reentered and remained there for a short time alone. Later, Cruz denied any involvement in the robbery or murder. Pinto-Rivera pled guilty to armed robbery and other offenses.

A Grand Jury indicted Cruz on charges of murder and other related offenses. The Gloucester County Prosecutor chose to prosecute the murder capitally, filing a notice of Aggravating Factors alleging that the murder was committed for the purpose of escaping detection and while Cruz was engaged in the commission of a robbery.

Cruz's trial commenced on January 17, 2001. The verdict sheet indicates that the court charged the jury on the lesser-included offenses of aggravated manslaughter, reckless manslaughter, and aggravated assault. Late in the afternoon on Thursday, March 2, 2001, the jury sent a not to the trial court stating: "We are unable to come to a unanimous agreement on any charges. Where do we go from here?" The trial court requested the jury to return the following Monday to resume its deliberations. The jury complied, but shortly after noon on Monday it sent another note, stating: "After further deliberation, we are unable to come to a unanimous decision on any counts set before us." The trial court declared a mistrial and discharged the jury, but conferred with the forewoman. The forewoman suggested that none of the jurors felt Cruz could be found guilty of murder, and split on whether he was guilty of the lesser-included offenses.

Defense counsel moved to recall the jury and have the court enter a not guilty verdict on the capital murder count. Two days later, the court recalled the forewoman to clarify the jury's votes on the murder count. This time, the forewoman explained that there were at least three votes for guilty on the murder count, a few not guilty, and the rest had not made up their mind. Based on this exchange, Cruz asserts that the discharged jury had voted 9-3 for acquittal on the murder charge. The trial court's discussion with the forewoman established that the jury never reached the "own conduct" issue on the verdict sheet. The following day, the court denied the motion for entry of a not guilty verdict on the capital murder count. Cruz then moved before the Criminal Presiding Judge to dismiss the capital murder count or bar retrial as a capital case. That motion also was denied, and the Appellate Division denied leave to appeal. The Supreme Court granted leave to appeal.

HELD: Neither principles of double jeopardy nor fundamental fairness bar Cruz's retrial for capital murder.

1. The constitutional bar of double jeopardy does not prohibit a retrial after a mistrial is caused by a jury deadlock. Nonetheless, Cruz argues that the jury's inability to reach a unanimous verdict on the murder charge should be interpreted as a non-unanimous determination that he did not commit the charged murder "by his own conduct." N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3c limits eligibility for the death penalty to a defendant who "committed the homicidal act by his own conduct." This Court has explained that the own conduct requirement is not an element of the offense of murder, but merely a triggering device for the death penalty phase of the trial This Court has also held that the inability of the jury to reach a unanimous decision on the own-conduct determination constitutes a final verdict that results in a life sentence. The Court has emphasized that deliberations on the "own conduct" question, however, do not begin until a jury has unanimously reached a guilty verdict on the charge of purposeful or knowing murder. (Pp. 10-16)

2. Cruz also asserts that principles of fundamental fairness require dismissal of the capital murder charge. The doctrine of fundamental fairness has been invoked to dismiss an indictment following mistrials attributable to repeated jury deadlocks. In determining whether an indictment should be dismissed, this Court has emphasized the significance of several factors, including the number of prior mistrials and the likelihood of the State obtaining a conviction in any retrial. (Pp. 16-22)

3. Cruz's arguments appear to be based on a misperception of this Court's death penalty jurisprudence. This Court has made it crystal clear that a guilt-phase jury in a capital case is not permitted to consider the own-conduct issue until it unanimously has determined that the defendant is guilty of purposeful or knowing murder. That sequential requirement reflects a recognition that although the issues are related, they are not necessarily interdependent. The concerns that lead to jury deadlock on a murder charge may or may not generate jury indecision on whether a defendant convicted unanimously of murder committed the homicide by his or her own conduct. Nor do principles of fundamental fairness bar Cruz's reprosecution for capital murder. Unlike other cases applying the doctrine, which involved two or three trials before indictments were dismissed, Cruz has been tried to a jury only once on the murder charge. Other than the deadlocked jury's apparent inclination in favor of acquittal on the murder charge, nothing presented to the Court demonstrates that a retrial is highly unlikely to result in a conviction. (Pp. 22-26)

The Law Division's denial of the motion to dismiss the capital-murder charge is AFFIRMED.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES COLEMAN, LONG, VERNIERO, LaVECCHIA and ZAZZALI join in JUSTICE STEIN's opinion.

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

Argued January 14, 2002

On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Gloucester County.

In this capital murder prosecution that was tried to a jury from January 17 to March 6, 2001, the trial court declared a mistrial because the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict on any count. After the Law Division denied defendant's post-trial motion to dismiss the capital murder count, we granted defendant's motion for leave to appeal that denial. Accordingly, the critical issue before us is whether principles of double jeopardy or fundamental fairness preclude retrial of a charge of capital murder if the first trial jury is unable to reach a unanimous verdict on the murder count.

Relying on our decisional law that establishes that a non-unanimous jury verdict on the issue whether defendant committed the murder in question by his own conduct precludes the death penalty, defendant asserts that a non-unanimous verdict on the murder count must necessarily be regarded as a non-unanimous verdict on the "by your own conduct" issue. We reject that contention and affirm the ruling of the Law Division.

I.

In an earlier appeal involving this capital murder prosecution, this Court granted the Attorney General's motion for leave to appeal the Appellate Division's determination concerning the appropriate jury instruction for serious bodily injury (SBI) capital murder, and discharged the unsworn sixteen-member petit jury that previously had been selected. State v. Cruz, 163 N.J. 403, 408-09 (2000). In our prior opinion, we set forth the factual background pertinent to the issue on appeal:

On December 11, 1995, seventy-four-year old Santina Leonardi, the owner of a combination convenience store and home in Woolwich Township, was found dead on the floor of the store by her granddaughter. Mrs. Leonardi had been beaten about the head and face and stabbed fourteen times. A broken knife blade was embedded in Mrs. Leonardi's chest. Thirteen of the fourteen stab wounds penetrated the heart and major blood vessels surrounding the heart. The other wound was a defensive wound to her hand. Mrs. Leonardi was pronounced dead at the scene.

The Gloucester County Prosecutor's homicide investigation eventually focused on defendant Luis A. Cruz, Jr. On February 24, 1996 co-defendant Jorge Pinto-Rivera agreed to wear a body wire and thereafter had several conversations with defendant. The statements made by defendant during those conversations were insufficient, however, to support the issuance of an arrest warrant. Subsequently, on February 26, 1996, Pinto-Rivera had a telephone conversation with defendant that was monitored. During the conversation Pinto-Rivera asked defendant the name of the woman that he had murdered and defendant responded with the name of the decedent, Mrs. Leonardi. Defendant also said that he was alone when he committed the murder. Based on that evidence, defendant was arrested and charged with the murder of Mrs. Leonardi.

During his post-arrest interrogation, defendant made a taped statement confessing to Mrs. Leonardi's murder. He said that an unspecified person had threatened to shoot him if he did not steal the deed to her house from Mrs. Leonardi. Defendant said that he and Pinto-Rivera went to the victim's convenience store after it was closed to rob her of the deed, and that during the robbery Pinto-Rivera knocked Mrs. Leonardi to the floor. Defendant said he stabbed her because she knew him and could identify him. However, he claimed that he stabbed Mrs. Leonardi only twice, and that after he left the store co-defendant Pinto-Rivera reentered the store alone and remained there for a short time before the two left the area. Defendant now denies any involvement in the robbery or the murder. Co-defendant Pinto-Rivera was arrested and pled guilty to armed robbery and other offenses.

A Gloucester County Grand Jury returned an indictment charging defendant with capital murder and other related offenses. [The other offenses were felony murder, robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery, possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, and unlawful possession of a weapon.] The County Prosecutor chose to prosecute defendant capitally and filed a Notice of Aggravating Factors alleging that the murder was committed for the purpose of escaping detection, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3c(4)(f), and that the murder was committed while defendant was engaged in the commission of a robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3c(4)(g). [Id. at 405-07.]

After this Court's resolution of the jury instruction issue, a second jury was selected and defendant's trial commenced on January 17, 2001. Although the trial court's jury instructions are not in the record, the verdict sheet indicates that the court charged the jury on the lesser-included offenses of aggravated manslaughter, reckless manslaughter, and aggravated assault. On Thursday, March 2, 2001, at about 4:00 p.m., the jury sent a note to the trial court that stated: "We are unable to come to a unanimous agreement on any charges. Where do we go from here?" The trial court instructed the jury consistent with State v. Czachor, 82 N.J. 392, 405 n.4 (1980), and requested that the jury return the following Monday to resume its deliberations. The jury complied, but at 12:15 p.m. on Monday it sent the trial court another note that stated: "After further deliberation, we are unable to come to a unanimous decision on any counts set before us." After declaring a mistrial and discharging the jury, the trial court conferred with the forewoman concerning the jurors' votes on the various counts:

The Court: Do you remember on the first charge what?

Juror No. 1: No one felt that he would have been –- was guilty of murder.

The Court: No one felt he was guilty of murder?

Juror No. 1: On that charge, number 1.

The Court: So you never got to (a) or (b) [the 'own conduct' inquiry]?

Juror No. 1: Correct.

The Court: That brought ...


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