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State v. Denofa

June 5, 2006

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
JOHN A. DENOFA, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 375 N.J. Super. 373 (2005).

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).

In this appeal, the Court must determine whether territorial jurisdiction is an element of the crime of murder and must be charged to the jury, even absent a request by defendant.

On April 1, 2000, Rachel Siani's body was found underneath the Delaware River Turnpike Bridge in Burlington Township. Siani was last seen talking with defendant John Denofa in the parking lot of a nightclub in Levittown, Pennsylvania, in the early morning hours of March 29, 2000. The Burlington County grand jury indicted Denofa for the murder of Siani "in Burlington County, and within the jurisdiction of this Court." The State's case, based on toll records, videotapes, witnesses' testimony, expert testimony, and forensic evidence, was that: Siani fell or was thrown to the ground from the second floor balcony of Denofa's motel room in Levittown. Denofa then transported Siani, who was still alive, in the bed of his pickup truck from his motel room to the bridge, from which he threw her 112 feet to her death. Neither before nor during trial did Denofa request that the court instruct the jury that territorial jurisdiction is an element of murder and that the State therefore was required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the murder was committed in New Jersey. Nor did the court charge the jury that the prosecution had to prove that the murder was committed within the State. Denofa was found guilty of murder and sentenced to a life term with thirty-years of parole ineligibility.

On appeal, Denofa, for the first time, argued that because a factual dispute existed over whether Siani died in New Jersey or Pennsylvania, he was entitled to have the issue decided by the jury. The Appellate Division agreed and reversed Denofa's conviction in a reported opinion.

This Court granted the State's petition for certification and denied Denofa's cross-petition.

HELD: Territorial jurisdiction is an element of murder and, on defendant's request, must be submitted to the jury if there is a legitimate factual dispute over the location of the crime; without a request, the trial court is required to charge territorial jurisdiction only if the record clearly indicates a factual dispute concerning where the crime occurred.

1. Territorial jurisdiction is an element of murder and, on defendant's request, must be submitted to the jury if there is a legitimate factual dispute over the location of the crime. Without a request, the trial court is required to charge territorial jurisdiction only if the record clearly indicates a factual dispute over where the crime occurred. (pp. 11-12)

2. Under the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice (our Code), as well as the common law, the State is vested with the power to prosecute and punish crimes that occur only within its territorial borders. (p. 12)

3. The next question is who decides whether the State possesses territorial jurisdiction to pursue a prosecution and convict a defendant. The United States Supreme Court has yet to hold that the United States Constitution requires jurisdictional facts to be determined by a jury. Courts from states that have adopted the Model Penal Code define territorial jurisdiction as an element of the offense that, when contested, must be found beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury. Our Code, which is patterned after the Model Penal Code, makes territorial jurisdiction an element of the offense that, when factually disputed, must be decided by a jury. This conclusion follows not only from a textual and historical analysis of our Code, but also from our case law. (pp. 13-15)

4. Our Code distinguishes between elements of an offense, designating some as material and others as non-material. Territorial jurisdiction is designated as a non-material element of an offense. The material elements of murder go to the essence of whether the defendant committed the crime. No one would question whether those elements must be submitted to the jury and decided beyond a reasonable doubt, even without a request by counsel. However, territorial jurisdiction is a non-material element, and for good reason never submitted to the jury unless there is some factual dispute concerning whether the crime occurred in this State. (pp. 18-19)

5. Having concluded that territorial jurisdiction must be submitted to the jury only when there is a dispute over the crime's location, we now must answer how a court is to determine whether jurisdiction is a disputed fact. We find an apt paradigm in our lesser-included-offense jurisprudence. Courts are required to instruct the jury on lesser-included offenses only if counsel requests such a charge and there is a rational basis in the record for doing so, or in the absence of a request, if the record clearly indicates a charge is warranted. Those standards should apply when trial courts consider whether to charge a jury on territorial jurisdiction. (pp. 20-21)

6. We do not construe Rule 3:10-2(e) to be in conflict with our holding today. We construe the rule to mean that the court may dismiss an indictment for lack of jurisdiction, pre-trial or post-conviction, due to insufficiency of evidence, but may not do so during trial. We outline the procedure that is to be followed when territorial jurisdiction is at issue. Any objection to the State's jurisdiction to prosecute a crime should be raised as early as possible before trial. If there are no facts in the record on which a rational trier of fact could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the crime was committed within the State, a motion to dismiss may be filed. If there are facts from which a rational factfinder could come to more than conclusion concerning the crime's location and the defendant intends to dispute territorial jurisdiction, he should put the State and court on notice at the final pretrial conference. If an appellate court is presented with the claim that the trial court on its own initiative was required to charge territorial jurisdiction, the appellate court first must determine whether the record clearly indicated that the crime's location was at issue. If territorial jurisdiction was not clearly in dispute, then the appellate court still must be satisfied regarding the sufficiency of the evidence. (pp. 22-24)

7. In this case, we conclude that the trial court was not required on its own initiative to charge territorial jurisdiction. We reach that conclusion because there was no factual dispute clearly indicated in the record that Rachel Siani died anywhere other than in New Jersey. Giving the State, as we must, the benefit of the most favorable evidence and most favorable inferences drawn from that evidence, we also hold that there is sufficient evidence in the trial record to support a finding that the crime occurred in this State. (pp24-25)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED; defendant's murder conviction is REINSTATED and the matter REMANDED to the trial court for entry of judgment consistent with this opinion.

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

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Albin

Argued January 17, 2006

Defendant John A. Denofa was convicted by a jury of murder. The Appellate Division overturned the conviction because the trial court did not require a jury finding that the crime was committed in New Jersey. In this appeal, we must determine whether territorial jurisdiction is an element of the crime of murder and must be charged to the jury, even absent a request by defendant. Additionally, we must decide whether there is sufficient evidence in the record to support a finding that defendant murdered the victim in this State. We now hold that territorial jurisdiction is an offense element and must be decided by the jury, even without a request from the defendant, provided the record clearly indicates a factual dispute concerning where the crime occurred. In this case, defendant did not request a territorial jurisdiction charge, the trial evidence did not clearly indicate that the location of the murder was at issue, and there was sufficient evidence to support the conclusion that the crime was committed in New Jersey. We therefore reverse the Appellate Division and reinstate defendant's conviction.

I.

A.

On April 1, 2000, the badly battered and lifeless body of twenty-one-year-old Rachel Siani was found lying face down underneath the Delaware River Turnpike Bridge in Burlington Township, New Jersey, approximately fifty yards from the edge of the Delaware River.*fn1 She was fully clothed, wearing a sweater, blue jeans, and socks. The blood on the bridge's retaining wall, an indentation on the ground directly beneath Rachel's body, and the lack of tire tracks or drag marks in the area strongly suggested that she had either fallen or was thrown from the bridge to her death.

Rachel was last seen talking with defendant in the parking lot of Diva's International Gentlemen's Club, located in Levittown, Pennsylvania, in the early morning hours of March 29, 2000. At the time, Rachel, a Bucks County Community College student, worked as an exotic dancer at Diva's and defendant was a regular Tuesday night customer at the club. On Tuesday, March 28, Rachel worked the 4:00 to 10:00 p.m. shift at Diva's. At some point during the evening, defendant and Rachel talked to each other while seated at the bar. Defendant invited Rachel to accompany him to the Sportsters Bar in Falls Township, Pennsylvania, but she declined, explaining that she was too tired. Both left Diva's separately sometime after 10:00 p.m.

At 11:16 p.m., defendant checked into room 223 on the second floor of the Econo Lodge Motel, which is connected to Diva's. On the registration card, defendant listed his vehicle as a red Dodge truck with Pennsylvania license plate number YR08859.*fn2 Shortly after checking in, defendant took a taxicab alone to the Sportsters Bar, where he met a friend, who drove him back to the Econo Lodge between 2:00 and 2:15 a.m.

Around that same time, Rachel returned to Diva's. At about 2:30 a.m., she and her friend Rebecca Yavorsky left the club and entered Yavorsky's car in the parking lot. There they remained for about half an hour, talking and smoking marijuana. When a police vehicle pulled into the lot, Yavorsky decided it was best to leave and pulled next to Rachel's car to drop her off. At that moment, Rachel saw defendant leaning against the front door of Diva's and told Yavorsky, "Oh, I'm going to say hi to Jack real fast." When Yavorsky offered to wait, Rachel assured her that "[t]here's nothing to worry about." Yavorsky then left. The police officer patrolling the lot saw defendant and Rachel enter the interior lobby of the Econo Lodge. Rachel was never seen alive again.

The State's theory of the events leading to Rachel's death was pieced together from circumstantial and forensic evidence. That evidence led the State to the following conclusions. Rachel fell from the second floor balcony of defendant's motel room to the ground twelve feet below. Afterwards, defendant transported Rachel, who was critically injured but still alive, in the bed of his pickup truck to the Delaware River Turnpike Bridge, from which he threw her 112 feet to her death.

The first support for that theory was the recollection of the Econo Lodge's night clerk that defendant smelled of soap when he checked out sometime shortly after 3:00 a.m.*fn3 At 3:13 a.m., a tractor-trailer driver observed a red pickup truck similar to the one owned by defendant at the Interchange 29 tollbooth of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, traveling in the direction of the Delaware River Turnpike Bridge. It takes just several minutes to drive from the Econo Lodge to Interchange 29 and only another minute-and-a-half to drive from there to the bridge where Rachel's body was found. The ...


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