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State v. Abdullah

August 2, 2005

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
ABDUL A. ABDULLAH, A/K/A LOWELL CAMPER, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is Reported at 372 N.J. Super. 252 (2004).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(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).

[Note: This is a companion case to State v. Natale and State v. Franklin, also decided today.]

The United States Supreme Court has declared in a string of rulings, Apprendi v. New Jersey, Blakely v. Washington, and United States v. Booker, that the Sixth Amendment's jury trial guarantee forbids a judge from imposing a sentence beyond the range authorized by either a jury's verdict or a defendant's admissions at a plea hearing. In State v. Natale (Natale II), decided today, we held that the Code of Criminal Justice's system of presumptive term sentencing violated the dictates of those cases. We now must decide whether other sentencing procedures intrude on the constitutional authority reserved to the jury.

Catrina Lark was brutally murdered in her apartment in Atlantic City. Abdul Aleem Abdullah was charged and convicted of her murder, burglary, and weapons possession offenses. At sentencing, the trial court identified four aggravating factors. Finding the aggravating factors to be overwhelming and no mitigating factors, the court sentenced Abdullah to life imprisonment with a thirty-year parole disqualifier on the murder conviction and to a consecutive ten-year prison term with a five-year parole disqualifier on one of the burglary convictions. On Abdullah's appeal, the appellate panel dismissed the claim that the maximum sentence that could be imposed for burglary based on the jury's verdict was the presumptive term for second-degree offenses. The panel also concluded that the imposition of a term of life imprisonment for murder did not violate Blakely. The panel held that the Sixth Amendment under Blakely and Apprendi does not require that a jury determine the factors necessary for the imposition of parole ineligibility or consecutive terms.

This Court granted Abdullah's petition for certification.

HELD: Abdullah's ten-year sentence for second-degree burglary is reversed; the trial court is to determine that sentence anew in accordance with Natale II; Abdullah's sentence of life imprisonment with a thirty-year parole disqualifier on the murder conviction is affirmed; finally, judicially-imposed parole disqualifiers pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6(b) and judicially-imposed consecutive sentences do not violate the Sixth Amendment.

1. Under the Code of Criminal Justice, a second-degree crime is punishable by a term of imprisonment between five and ten years, with a presumptive term of seven years. In Natale II, we held that the maximum sentence that can be imposed based on a jury verdict alone is the presumptive term, and therefore the statutory maximum is the presumptive term. A sentence above the presumptive term premised on a judge's finding of aggravating factors, other than the fact of a prior criminal conviction, is incompatible with the holdings in Apprendi, Blakely, and Booker. (pp. 10-11)

2. In this case, the trial court imposed a ten year sentence for second-degree burglary based on its finding of four statutory aggravating factors. It appears that the sentencing court used the "especially heinous, cruel, or depraved nature of the crime" -- a fact not specifically found by the jury -- as a basis for increasing the burglary sentence above its presumptive term. We cannot tell from the record whether the court used that fact-finding to support only that aggravating factor or whether it also was used to support other aggravating factors. In light of Blakely, and our decision in Natale II, only a jury finding of that fact would justify increasing a sentence above the presumptive. Accordingly, we are compelled to remand for resentencing on the burglary conviction. (pp. 11-12)

3. In Natale II, we excised the presumptive terms from the Code so that judges still will decide the aggravating factors as the Legislature would have intended. Therefore, on remand, without the presumptive term as the required starting point, the trial court will consider all aggravating and mitigating factors in determining the appropriate sentence within the range for second-degree burglary. On remand, the court also must articulate why it selected the applicable sentencing factors and how it weighed those factors in imposing the appropriate sentence. (p.13)

4. The trial court sentenced Abdullah to life imprisonment with a thirty-year parole disqualifier for murder. Murder has no presumptive term. In contrast with Abdullah's burglary conviction, in which the upper sentencing limit based on the jury's verdict alone was the presumptive term, the murder conviction did not impose a de facto ceiling below life imprisonment. Therefore, the trial court had discretion to impose a sentence within the statutory range of thirty years to life based on its consideration of the applicable sentencing factors. Because the crime of murder has no presumptive term, Abdullah, like every murderer, knows he is risking life in prison. We therefore conclude that the sentence of life imprisonment was not in derogation of Abdullah's Sixth Amendment jury trial right. (pp. 14-16)

5. Based on its finding of aggravating factors the trial court imposed the maximum parole disqualifier -- five years -- on the ten-year burglary sentence. Both the United States Supreme Court and this Court have upheld the constitutionality of statutes that allow judges to impose mandatory-minimum parole ineligibility terms within the sentencing range authorized by the jury verdict. N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6(b) invests the sentencing court with the discretion to impose a parole disqualifier where the court is clearly convinced that the aggravating factors substantially outweigh the mitigating factors. In light of the decisions upholding the constitutionality of statutes that allow judges to impose mandatory minimum ineligibility terms, and the constitutional principles that undergird them, we hold that N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6(b) does not violate the federal or state constitutional right to trial by jury. (pp. 16-21)

6. Abdullah's five-year term of parole ineligibility for second-degree burglary falls squarely within constitutional boundaries. However, because of our earlier holding requiring a remand for resentencing on the burglary conviction, the remand court again will consider the appropriate parole disqualifier based on its weighing of the applicable factors. The court must articulate on the record whether it was clearly convinced that the aggravating factors substantially outweighed the mitigating factors. (pp. 21-22)

7. The Code does not set forth any standards to guide the court's discretion in deciding whether to impose consecutive or concurrent sentences when a defendant is convicted of multiple offenses. To bring rationality to the process and to further the goal of sentencing uniformity, this Court, in State v. Yarbough, developed criteria to be applied by the courts in making those decisions. Under our sentencing scheme, there is no presumption in favor of concurrent sentences; the maximum potential sentence authorized by the jury verdict is the aggregate of sentences for multiple convictions. In that vein, consecutive sentences do not invoke the same concerns that troubled the Supreme Court in Apprendi, Blakely, and Booker. Imposing a consecutive sentence for murder and burglary in this case did not exceed the statutory maximum for Blakely or Apprendi purposes. However, because the trial court did not explain why it imposed consecutive sentences, we are compelled to remand for the court to place its reasons on the record. We remind our courts that when imposing either consecutive or concurrent sentences, the focus should be on the fairness of the overall sentence, and that they should articulate the reasons for their decisions with specific reference to the Yarbough factors. (pp. 22-26)

8. We reverse Abdullah's ten-year sentence for second-degree burglary and remand to the trial court to determine the sentence anew in accordance with Natale II. The court will consider again the imposition of a parole disqualifier. We affirm Abdullah's sentence of life imprisonment with a thirty-year parole disqualifier on the murder conviction. We also hold that judicially-imposed parole disqualifiers pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6(b) and judicially-imposed consecutive sentences do not violate the Sixth Amendment. On remand, the court must articulate for the record its reasons for imposing consecutive sentences and any parole disqualifier. (pp. 26-27)

The decision below is REVERSED in part and AFFIRMED in part, and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ZAZZALI, WALLACE and RIVERA-SOTO join in JUSTICE ALBIN's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Albin

Argued March 14, 2005

The Sixth Amendment's jury trial guarantee forbids a judge from imposing a sentence beyond the range authorized by either a jury's verdict or a defendant's admissions at a plea hearing.

United States v. Booker, ___ U.S. ___, , 125 S.Ct. 738, 749, 160 L.Ed. 2d 621 (2005); Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296, ___, 124 S.Ct. 2531, 2537, 159 L.Ed. 2d 403 (2004); Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 488-90, 120 S.Ct. 2348, 2362-63, 147 L.Ed. 2d 435, 453-55 (2000). To conform the Code of Criminal Justice to that constitutional principle, today, in State v. Natale, we struck down the Code's system of presumptive term sentencing. ___ N.J. ___, ___ (2005) (slip op. at 30) (Natale II).

Under the Code, the maximum sentence that a judge may impose based on a jury verdict alone is the statutory presumptive term. Id. at ___ (slip op. at 29). Without being bound by the verdict, however, the judge is empowered by the Code to sentence a defendant above the presumptive term based on a finding of one or more aggravating factors listed in N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(a). Id. at ___ (slip op. at 29-30). It is the delegation of that authority to a judge to impose a sentence above the presumptive based on judicial factfinding that runs afoul of the Sixth Amendment. Id. at (slip op. at 30). In Natale II, supra, we removed the presumptive terms from N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(f) to bring the Code into compliance with the Sixth Amendment. ___ N.J. at (slip op. at 34).

We now must decide whether other sentencing procedures under the Code intrude on the authority reserved to the jury under the Constitution. In this case, we conclude that the powers given to a judge by the Code to sentence a defendant to a period of life imprisonment for murder, to a period of parole disqualification pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6(b), and to consecutive sentences for multiple convictions do not run counter to the Sixth Amendment.

I.

A.

Catrina Lark was brutally murdered in her apartment in Atlantic City. Defendant Abdul Aleem Abdullah was charged in an indictment with her murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1), (2) (count one), and with second-degree burglary, N.J.S.A. 2C:18-2 (counts two and three), third-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(d) (counts four and five), and fourth-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, N.J.S.A. 2C: 39-5(d) (counts six and seven). During defendant's trial, a jury learned of the events surrounding Lark's death.

Defendant and Lark were involved in a two-year romantic relationship that ended in December 1998. During that period, defendant spent daytime hours with Lark and his evenings with his girlfriend Joan Robinson, the mother of his two children. Around January 1999, while incarcerated in the Atlantic County jail for a parole violation, defendant learned that Lark was involved in a relationship with his cousin, Robert Boswell, who also was detained in that jail facility. When Lark visited Boswell at the jail ...


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