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State v. Rodriguez

December 29, 2003


Before Judges Havey, Fall and Hoens. On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Indictment No. 94-10-1606.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Havey, P.J.A.D.


Submitted December 1, 2003

Defendant was charged under Middlesex County Indictment 94-10-1606 with murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(1) and N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(2) (count one); and six counts of third-degree possession of weapons (machete, knife, scissors, razor blade, screwdriver and a noose) for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4d (counts two through seven). Tried to a jury, defendant was found not guilty of murder, but guilty of the lesser-included offense of aggravated manslaughter. He was also found guilty of possession of the following weapons for an unlawful purpose: machete (count two); knife (count three); and razor blade (count five). He was acquitted on the remaining charges. After the court merged counts two, three and five into defendant's conviction for aggravated manslaughter, he was sentenced to a thirty-year term of imprisonment, with a fifteen-year period of parole ineligibility. Defendant's post-verdict motion for a judgment of acquittal or for a new trial was denied.

Defendant now appeals, raising the following points:

Point I - Prosecutorial misconduct deprived defendant of his due process right to a fair trial. U.S. Const. Amend. XIV; N.J. Const. (1947) Art. I, par. 10.

Point II - The court erred in instructing the jury that if it found defendant not guilty by reason of insanity, he might, or might not, be committed to a mental institution. (Not raised below).

Point III - The jury's failure to find that defendant was insane was against the weight of the evidence.

Point IV - Imposition of the maximum sentence with the maximum parole disqualifier was excessive.

Point V - The VCCB penalty imposed is excessive and imposed with no statement of reasons.

We reverse and remand for a new trial. We conclude that the prosecutor's comments during summation denigrating the insanity defense advanced by defendant deprived him of a fair trial.

Defendant and the victim, Carmen Santos, were neighbors in an apartment building on Smith Street in Perth Amboy. The State presented evidence that defendant bludgeoned Santos to death in his apartment on November 13, 1989. The victim died from an excessive loss of blood resulting from multiple chop, stab, and incise wounds to her face, arms, and torso. During trial, defendant did not dispute his role in Santos' death.

The central issue in the case was defendant's affirmative defense of insanity. According to John Heath, one of defendant's co-workers at a factory in Port Reading, during his employment defendant engaged in odd behavior such as rolling a sandwich on the ground and then eating it. He characterized defendant as a very disturbed person. Defendant told his co-workers and neighbors that he had been hospitalized in Chicago for a brain tumor, that after an accident a metal plate was placed in his head, and that he had spent time in a Chicago psychiatric hospital.

In the weeks leading to the November 13, 1989 killing, defendant told his co-workers that he had a girlfriend, whom the co-workers assumed lived in defendant's building and received financial support from defendant. Throughout the trial it was presumed that defendant was referring to Santos.

On the day of the homicide defendant worked a full shift but, according to co-workers, he"wasn't himself." Defendant told them that his girlfriend was cheating on him and that"I'm going to kill the goddamn bitch." While making the statement defendant held a razor blade between his fingers.

When defendant returned home after work, he killed Santos. A search of defendant's apartment revealed a machete testing positive for Santos' blood, a pair of scissors, a box cutter, and razor blades. A pocket knife, razor blade and small screwdriver were found on defendant's person when he was hospitalized after the killing.

The evidence suggested that after the killing defendant made attempts to commit suicide. In addition to the numerous stab wounds suffered by defendant, which appeared to be self-inflicted, the police found a noose hanging in defendant's closet. After the killing defendant was observed walking in the street naked and bloodstained. He was later seen naked on a bicycle covered with blood and suffering from multiple cut wounds. While traversing the streets naked, defendant yelled to strangers that"I killed my wife. Go save her. I killed my wife." En route to the hospital in an ambulance, defendant stated,"go to 108 I killed the bitch, go to 108." At the hospital defendant was incoherent, saying that he was God, mentioning Jesus Christ, and that he wanted to play baseball and go fishing. The police read him his Miranda*fn1 rights and had him sign a Miranda waiver. However, they did not believe that defendant understood his rights, and deemed it impossible to interview him because of his mental condition.

The medical and psychiatric evidence presented by defendant in support of the insanity defense was substantial. Dr. A.P. Swaminathan, a general surgeon who worked in the emergency room of the Raritan Bay Medical Center, described defendant's demeanor upon admission as agitated and uncooperative. Defendant was incoherent and confused and was unable to provide any medical history to the staff.

Dr. Michele Seriye, a psychiatrist, treated defendant on a daily basis for a three- to four-day period until he was released from the hospital on November 17, 1989. According to Dr. Seriye, defendant was"acutely psychotic" and"totally incoherent." The doctor tentatively diagnosed defendant as suffering from an organic mental disorder. However, he was unable to give a final diagnosis for a number of reasons, including the doctor's inability to elicit from defendant any coherent answers to medical-history questions. It was Dr. Seriye's belief that he would"not entertain a diagnosis of malingering" based on the information available to him at the time of defendant's treatment. According to the witness, it was a"total impossibility" that defendant was faking his symptoms.

For eleven years from 1989 through 2000, defendant was regularly shuttled between jail and various State psychiatric institutions pending his competency to stand trial.*fn2 During this period defendant spent approximately three years and eight months in psychiatric institutions, where he was prescribed a variety of anti-psychotic drugs.

Dr. Charles Gnassi, a psychiatrist, treated defendant for six years between 1989 and 1995. According to Dr. Gnassi, when defendant was medicated his thinking cleared. When unmedicated, however, defendant became delusional and preoccupied with internal stimuli. Defendant talked to himself, speaking nonsense, or simply became catatonic, or mute. Dr. Gnassi's ultimate diagnosis was that defendant suffered from chronic undifferentiated schizophrenia. The doctor also discounted the possibility that defendant was malingering.

Dr. Gnassi opined that, based upon his observations and treatment of defendant, as well as the observation of others immediately after the November 13, 1989 killing, he believed that defendant was psychotic and delusional both immediately before the killing and during the event. In Dr. Gnassi's view, defendant did not understand the nature and quality of his acts on November 13, 1989 as a result of his mental illness. Moreover, Dr. Gnassi did not believe that defendant's apparent suicide attempts, immediately after the killing, ...

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