On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Indictment No. 0253-02-97.
Before Judges Pressler, Ciancia and Alley.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ciancia, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 21, 2003
Defendant Pradeep Madan was indicted for the October 4, 1996 stabbing murder of Frederick Smith. The indictment in one count charged a knowing or purposeful murder, including murder by infliction of serious bodily injury. N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(1),(2). The indictment in other counts charged fourth-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, third-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, and third-degree escape.
Defendant entered a guilty plea to aggravated manslaughter and escape. The State's sentencing recommendation was twenty years with a seven-year parole disqualification for manslaughter and a concurrent five-year sentence for escape. The State was free to argue that both sentences should run consecutively to a New York State sentence defendant was serving for attempted robbery.
On the day of sentencing, the trial court rejected defendant's plea agreement. A few days later, following another discussion about the propriety of defendant's plea, the court issued a one-page"memorandum" to counsel setting forth its reasons for rejecting the plea agreement.
The following month, defendant was tried before a jury and found guilty of all charges in the indictment except third degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with thirty years parole disqualification for murder, and a consecutive five-year term for escape was also imposed. The conviction for unlawfully possessing a weapon was merged into the murder conviction. On direct appeal we affirmed defendant's judgment of conviction. State v. Madan, No. A-7069-98T4 (App. Div. November 17, 2000). Significantly, no issue was raised as to the trial court's rejection of the plea agreement. The Supreme Court denied defendant's petition for certification, State v. Madan, 167 N.J. 632 (2001).
Defendant filed a petition for post-conviction relief which was denied following oral argument. No evidentiary hearing was provided.
Defendant appeals the denial of post-conviction relief and raises the following issues:
THE ORDER DENYING POST-CONVICTION RELIEF SHOULD BE REVERSED AND REMANDED SINCE THE TRIAL COURT FAILED TO CONDUCT A FULL EVIDENTIARY HEARING ON THE ISSUE OF INEFFECTIVE-ASSISTANCE-OF-COUNSEL CLAIM.
(A) TRIAL COUNSEL'S FAILURE TO ADEQUATELY PREPARE FOR TRIAL AND TO CONSULT HIS CLIENT WITH RESPECT TO HIS CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT TO TESTIFY REGARDING THE DEFENSE OF SELF-DEFENSE, RESULTED IN TRIAL COUNSEL MAKING A CATASTROPHICALLY UNFULFILLED PROMISE TO THE JURY IN HIS OPENING STATEMENT THAT DEFENDANT WOULD TESTIFY DURING TRIAL, AND RESULTED IN THE JURY NOT HEARING EVIDENCE NECESSARY TO THE DEFENSE OF SELF-DEFENSE.
(B) TRIAL COUNSEL FAILED TO ADEQUATELY PREPARE FOR TRIAL AND TO CONSULT HIS CLIENT REGARDING DECISIONS WHICH WERE MADE WITH RESPECT TO CONCEDING GUILT TO LESSOR INCLUDED CHARGES, THEREBY ADMITTING GUILT TO MANSLAUGHTER WITHOUT THE CLIENT'S APPROVAL AND HAVING ADVISED THE CLIENT THAT HE WOULD BE"ACQUITTED" OF THE CHARGES WITHOUT TESTIFYING.
TRIAL COUNSEL'S FAILURE TO CONDUCT AN INVESTIGATION OR PRESENT EVIDENCE CONSISTENT WITH DEFENDANT'S DEFENSE WAS NOT UNASSAILABLE AS A STRATEGY DECISION.
DEFENDANT RECEIVED INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF APPELLATE COUNSEL BY COUNSEL'S FAILURE TO RAISE THE ISSUE OF THE IMPROPER REJECTION OF HIS NEGOTIATED PLEA BY THE TRIAL COURT ON DIRECT APPEAL.
(A) THE POST-CONVICTION COURT ERRED IN REJECTING PETITIONER'S CLAIM THAT APPELLATE COUNSEL FAILED TO PURSUE A VALID APPELLATE ISSUE, SPECIFICALLY, THAT THE TRIAL COURT ABUSED ITS DISCRETION BY REJECTING DEFENDANT'S PLEA TO AGGRAVATED MANSLAUGHTER AND THAT DEFENDANT SHOULD BE ENTITLED TO THE BENEFIT OF THE PLEA BARGAIN.
(B) IF THE APPELLATE COURT FINDS THAT THIS MATTER MUST FIRST BE DECIDED BY THE LAW DIVISION, THE MATTER MUST BE REMANDED TO ANOTHER LAW DIVISION JUDGE, SINCE THE TRIAL/POST-CONVICTION COURT ERRED IN REFUSING TO RECUSE HERSELF FROM DECIDING THE ISSUE OF APPELLANT COUNSEL'S INEFFECTIVENESS, HAVING PREVIOUSLY EXPRESSED CONCLUSIONS REGARDING THE SUBSTANTIVE MERITS ON THE ISSUE OF WHETHER THE REJECTION OF DEFENDANT'S PLEA WAS APPROPRIATE.
THE ORDER DENYING POST-CONVICTION RELIEF SHOULD BE REVERSED SINCE THE COURT ERRED IN FINDING THAT DEFENDANT WAS PROCEDURALLY BARRED FROM RAISING THE INEFFECTIVE-ASSISTANCE-OF-COUNSEL CLAIM.
We find merit in defendant's contention that appellate counsel's failure to raise the trial court's rejection of defendant's plea agreement as an issue on direct appeal constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S. Ct. 2052, 80 L. Ed. 2d 674 (1984); State v. Fritz, 105 N.J. 42, 58 (1987). We are further persuaded that rejection of the plea agreement constituted an abuse of judicial discretion. State v. Daniels, 276 N.J. Super. 483, 487 (App. Div. 1994), certif. denied, 139 N.J. 443 (1995). The consequence of our holding is the reinstatement of defendant's plea bargain. Accordingly, we do not address other issues which, if successful, would result in an evidentiary hearing on defendant's petition for post-conviction relief.
We begin with the facts as available to the trial court at the time the plea was rejected. We note that the facts developed at trial were not significantly different. Defendant never denied stabbing the victim. Only some of the surrounding circumstances were ever in serious dispute. When defendant gave the factual basis for his plea to first-degree aggravated manslaughter, he admitted stabbing the victim, Frederick Smith. Defendant answered affirmatively when asked if the stabbing occurred"after Mr. Smith had engaged in a fight with you, physical fight?"
The presentence report prepared on October 13, 1998, provides the following description of events:
Mr. Pradeep Prakasa Madan is a 23 year old male, who pled guilty to the aggravated manslaughter of Mr. Frederick Smith. On October 4th, 1996 Mr. Madan was crossing the street at the intersection of Newark and Summit Avenues in Jersey City, N.J. when Mr. Smith stopped just short of hitting the defendant and two other juveniles with his car about 11:50 p.m. Angered, the trio started an argument with Mr. Smith and a female passenger. Words were exchanged and the victim, Mr. Smith got out of his car. These words escalated into a physical confrontation. The trio beat up on Mr. Smith then Mr. Madan stabbed Mr. Smith with a knife in the heart, delivering a fatal blow. Once ...