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State v. Vandeweaghe

July 21, 2003

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
PETER VANDEWEAGHE, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 351 N.J. Super. 467 (2002).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

The Court determines whether the admission at trial of irrelevant and highly prejudicial evidence that defendant suffered from antisocial personality disorder was justified on the ground that defendant"opened the door" in his intoxication defense to murder.

In 1998, defendant was a homeless alcoholic living on the streets of Atlantic City. Penny Lacomchek was also homeless and an alcoholic. They pooled their resources to purchase alcohol, clothes and occasional shelter. On July 24, 1998, Atlantic City police officers were dispatched to investigate the report of a male beating a female. The officers found Lacomchek sitting at the top of a motel staircase with defendant standing nearby. Lacomchek refused to sign a complaint or to be transported to a hospital. Shortly thereafter, several witnesses saw defendant repeatedly kick Lacomchek in the head and the police were called again. The officer testified that on arriving he saw defendant standing over Lacomchek and kicking her. Defendant was arrested. Lacomchek was transported to a hospital, where she later died. The State charged defendant with purposeful or knowing murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(1), (2).

At trial, defendant admitted kicking Lacomchek, but claimed that his faculties were so prostrated due to selfinduced intoxication that he was incapable of acting purposely or knowingly. In support, defendant offered the testimony of a forensic psychiatrist, who diagnosed him as suffering from severe alcohol addiction. The expert concluded that defendant was so overwhelmed by intoxication on the night he kicked Lacomchek to death that he was not able to form the intent to kill or to cause serious bodily injury. The defendant's expert also commented on a pretrial report authored by the State's expert. In that report, the State's expert opined that defendant suffered from antisocial personality disorder. Defendant's expert testified that intoxication precludes a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder and that the diagnosis by the State's expert was incorrect.

The State's expert testified that although defendant suffered from alcohol addiction, defendant was not unduly influenced by alcohol on the night Lacomchek died. The State's expert also testified that defendant suffered from antisocial personality disorder and exp lained that the disorder would not affect defendant's ability to know what was happening or to act purposefully. The State's expert discussed the characteristics of the disorder as including impulsivity, lying, lawlessness, aggressiveness, irresponsibility and a lack of remorse. The expert then discussed defendant's past conduct that supported the diagnosis. That conduct included defendant's prior arrest for burglary, imprisonment for larceny, and statements by individuals interviewed by the expert who contended that defendant lied, gambled, stole and engaged in other undesirable conduct. The expert also testified that a person with an antisocial personality is able to lie successfully, and he testified as to defendant's ability to sound sincere.

Defense counsel did not object to the expert's testimony. However, the court cautioned the jury not to infer that on the night in question the defendant acted in conformance with the prior acts mentioned, or that he is a bad person, or that because of those prior acts he committed the offense charged. The court instructed the jury that the discussion by the State's expert of defendant's alleged prior bad acts could be considered only for the purpose of assessing the foundation of the expert's conclusions. The jury found defendant guilty.

The Appellate Division reversed defendant's conviction and remanded for a new trial. The panel held that the testimony by the State's expert regarding defendant's personality disorder, which included inadmissible hearsay statements and opinions regarding the credibility and moral character of the defendant, unduly prejudiced the defendant and thus had the capacity to produce an unjust result. The panel also noted that the trial court erred in allowing a police officer to testify that he was dispatched to investigate a report that a male was beating a female, because such testimony constituted inadmissible hearsay evidence.

This Court granted the State's petition for certification, The opinion of the court was delivered by: Zazzali, J.

Argued April 29, 2003

In this appeal we must determine whether the admission of irrelevant and highly prejudicial evidence that defendant suffered from antisocial personality disorder was justified on the ground that defendant "opened the door" in his intoxication defense to murder.

This matter arose after several individuals witnessed defendant Peter Vandeweaghe kick his female companion to death in Atlantic City. Defendant claimed that at the time of the incident he was incapable of forming the requisite mens rea for purposeful or knowing murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(1),(2), due to severe, self-induced intoxication. Defendant and the State each presented a forensic psychologist to testify regarding defendant's intoxication and its impact on his ability to act purposely or knowingly. In addition, each expert presented conflicting testimony concerning whether defendant suffered from antisocial personality disorder.

We conclude that the expert testimony in respect of antisocial personality disorder was inadmissible. We also find that the State's expert's testimony regarding that disorder was so prejudicial that it clearly had the capacity to produce an unjust result and, for that reason, denied defendant the right to a fair trial. We therefore affirm.

I.

A.

The facts established at trial are detailed in the decision of the Appellate Division, State v. Vandeweaghe, 351 N.J. Super. 467, 470-76 (2002), and are incorporated herein as if more fully set forth. We provide the following summary.

Defendant, a forty-six-year-old homeless, unemployed alcoholic, was living on the streets of Atlantic City in 1998. In April or May of that year defendant met Penny Lacomchek, who also was homeless and an alcoholic. The couple pooled their resources to purchase alcohol, clothes, and occasional shelter.

On July 24, 1998 at approximately 9:50 p.m., Atlantic City Police Officers Dennis McGee and Michael Ruzzo were dispatched to the Flamingo Motel to investigate a report of "a male beating a female." There, the officers encountered Lacomchek sitting at the top of a motel staircase and defendant standing about ten feet away from her. McGee testified that he did not observe any "fresh" injury to Lacomchek, but asked whether she wanted to sign a complaint or go to ...


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