On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 355 N.J. Super. 355 (2002).
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).
The issue in this appeal is whether defendant's second petition for post-conviction relief (PCR) is procedurally barred. The petition was filed over ten years after the underlying conviction and over five years after the relevant case law allowed defendant to seek relief.
In 1997, defendant was tried and convicted of sexually assaulting and murdering a thirteen-year-old girl. The crime had occurred two years earlier. Defendant's counsel considered, but ultimately did not present, a diminished-capacity defense. At the time of trial that defense was governed by a version of N.J.S.A. 2C: 4-2 later
deemed unconstitutional because it required that a defendant prove the existence of the mental disease or defect by a preponderance of the evidence, impermissibly relieving the State of its obligation to prove each element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Humanik v. Beyer, 871 F. 2d 432, (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 812, 110 S. Ct. 57, 107 L. Ed. 2d 25 (1989).
Following Humanik, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued two directives. The first directive, issued on November 2, 1989, directed trial courts to no longer require defendants to prove diminished-capacity by a preponderance of the evidence. On December 28, 1989, the Court issued its second directive, extending the first directive to appeals as of December 8, 1989, but cautioning that not every case presenting a diminished-capacity defense would warrant a reversal. Defendant's direct appeal was pending as of the date of the second directive, but he did not raise the diminished-capacity defense at that time. Defendant first raised the defense on July 21, 1992, in his first PCR petition, despite the Appellate Division's decision in State v. Culley, holding that the Humanik directives only applied to pending appeals and future trials, not to PCR petitions. 250 N.J. Super. 558, certif.. denied, 126 N.J. 387 (1991). That petition was denied. This Court implicitly overturned Culley in State v. Reyes, 140 N.J. 344 (1995). On August 16, 2000, more than five years after Reyes, defendant filed a second PCR, also denied by the trial court. This time, however, the Appellate Division reversed, directing the trial court to conduct a plenary hearing to determine whether defendant could present sufficient proof of diminished capacity under a proper post-Humanik standard if permitted to do so at a new trial.
The Supreme Court granted the State's petition for certification.
HELD: Defendant has provided this Court with no compelling reason to relax the procedural bar of Rule 3:22-12.
The State would be significantly prejudiced if now forced to relitigate issues pertaining to crimes and a trial that occurred nearly two decades ago.
1. Rule 3:22-12 establishes a five-year time limit for the filing of most PCR petitions, from the "time of the conviction or the time of the sentencing, whichever the defendant is challenging." State v. Goodwin, 173 N.J. 583, 594 (2002). Difficulties stemming from the lapse of time are the rule's main focus: "Achieving 'justice' years after the fact may be more an illusory temptation than a plausibly attainable goal when memories have dimmed, witnesses have died or disappeared, and evidence is lost or unattainable." State v. Mitchell, 126 N.J. 565, 575. The five-year rule is not absolute and may not apply where the "interests of justice" would dictate otherwise or where the defendant has demonstrated "excusable neglect." (Pp. 5-7)
2. There is no dispute that defendant's petition is governed by the five-year filing period. Despite the unsettled state of the law created by Humanik, we conclude that defendant had two opportunities to assert his claims in a timely fashion but failed to do so. The result is that the State would be significantly prejudiced if now forced to relitigate issues pertaining to crimes and a trial that occurred nearly two decades ago. Defendant's first PCR in 1992 initially included a Humanik claim and was therefore not encumbered by Culley. Moreover, defendant could have opted to challenge Culley as the defendant did in Reyes. The second PCR petition came more than five years after Reyes.
Defendant's cumulative delay leaves the judiciary with the prospect of evaluating the propriety of a sixteen-year-old criminal conviction, with all the difficulties and hardships to the system that would attend such an endeavor. Consistent with our prior case law, we cannot sanction that prospect absent compelling circumstances. Defendant has failed to justify his failure to file his second petition within five years of Reyes. In addition, defendant's pursuit of federal review ordinarily would not extend the time frame within which to file a PCR petition in State court. Measured against the extended backdrop of this case, including two opportunities to proceed with a Humanik claim within two separate five-year periods, defendant has provided us with no compelling reason to relax the procedural bar of Rule 3:22-12. Finally, there must be a stronger sense of the claim's merit than is apparent here before relaxing the procedural bar and requiring the State at a plenary hearing to relitigate aspects of a sixteen-year-old conviction. (Pp. 7-12)
The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED.
JUSTICE LONG filed a separate, DISSENTING opinion, stating that she did not concede the majority's conclusion that defendant unreasonably delayed in this case, warranting the imposition of a procedural bar.
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN and WALLACE join in JUSTICE VERNIERO's opinion. JUSTICE LONG filed a separate, dissenting opinion. JUSTICE ZAZZALI did not participate.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Verniero
The subject of this criminal appeal is defendant's second petition for post-conviction relief (PCR). The trial court denied the petition after concluding that defendant had filed it over ten years after the underlying conviction and over five years after the relevant case law allowed him to seek relief. The Appellate Division remanded the matter to the trial court with instructions to conduct a plenary hearing. We ...