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State v. King

August 18, 2006


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, 03-04-561.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Axelrad, J.T.C. (temporarily assigned).



Argued: December 20, 2005

Before Judges Skillman, Axelrad and Payne.

We granted leave to appeal to both the State and defendant from an order pertaining to psychiatric testimony proffered by the defense. The expert testimony is offered by defendant to cast doubt on the reliability of his confession, which is the principal evidence in the State's case to prove defendant committed murder. The judge found the confession voluntary and admissible, and defendant did not seek leave to appeal on that issue.

The appeal concerns whether defendant's forensic psychiatrist should be permitted to testify that defendant's narcissistic and antisocial personality disorders affected the confession's reliability. After conducting a hearing pursuant to N.J.R.E. 104, the court entered an order permitting Dr. Roger Harris to testify, as an expert in the field of forensic psychiatry, that "he diagnosed the defendant with certain psychiatric disorders, the characteristics of those disorders, and that defendant suffered from those disorders on [the date of his confession]," and that "defendant's psychiatric disorders are consistent with the defendant's claim of false confession or are . . . associated with false confessions."*fn1 The court, however, restricted Dr. Harris from testifying "as to anything the defendant or anyone else told him about the circumstances surrounding the giving of the confession. . . ."

The State seeks total exclusion of the psychiatric evidence. Defendant seeks admission of the proffered testimony without the restrictions imposed by the trial judge. We affirm on the State's appeal. On defendant's appeal, we affirm in part and reverse in part.


Defendant George King was charged with the murder of Meifang Rush at the Woodbridge Mall, which occurred on January 8, 2003. Rush was apparently abducted near her car and strangled to death. The police had no suspects in their murder investigation until March 2003.

On March l3, 2003, at about ll:00 p.m., defendant was arrested and brought to the Newark police station for questioning on the homicide of Edna Ryan. Detective Michael DeMaio of the Newark Police Department and Investigator Nicole Berrian of the Essex County Prosecutor's Office began questioning defendant at about 3:15 a.m. and, within an hour, defendant had confessed to Ryan's murder.*fn2

Almost immediately after the Ryan statement was taken, defendant stated, "I might as well tell you about Woodbridge." When Detective DeMaio asked what he meant, defendant referred to the murder of a girl at a mall in Woodbridge, prompting the Newark police to contact the Woodbridge Police Department.

Detective Edward Galinis of the Woodbridge Police Department and Investigator Kevin Morton of the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office arrived at the Newark Police Department at about 6:30 a.m. They conducted a pre-interview of defendant, advised him of his Miranda*fn3 rights, and took a formal taped statement of defendant beginning at about 9:00 a.m., in which he confessed to the murder of Rush at the Woodbridge Mall.

Defendant claims his confession to the Rush homicide is false. He also claims that during the March l4, 2003 interrogation he falsely confessed or attempted to confess to a number of other murders. Defendant did not testify at the pre-trial hearing. Testimony at the hearing disclosed that during defendant's interrogations with both the Essex County and Middlesex County detectives and investigators, defendant talked about other unsolved crimes in addition to the Ryan and Rush murders. The extent to which he discussed other crimes, and whether he confessed to other murders, is disputed. Defendant claimed he was "involved" in or had "knowledge" or "information" about the crimes. The State insists that defendant confessed to no other crimes.

During the Ryan questioning, Newark detective DeMaio asked defendant if he knew anything about a girl's body that had been found behind a Popeye's Restaurant, which was close to the Ryan murder site. Defendant said, "I don't really want to talk about that. You know [that] I will." According to the detective, defendant did not confess to the murder and only provided details that were in the newspaper, so the discussion was not pursued further. It was subsequently learned that defendant was incarcerated in North Carolina at the time of the Popeye's homicide. Defendant also said that he stabbed a Puerto Rican man in the Down Neck section of Newark. The department checked to confirm the report of the stabbing but could find no such report.

According to the Middlesex County investigators, while discussing the Rush matter, there were times defendant would "go off on tangents" and start discussing other incidents and they "just let him talk." According to Detective Galinis, defendant indicated he had "information" about the Popeye's homicide and about a l995 or l996 homicide of a drug dealer named "Apu" in Elizabeth. The detective was certain that defendant never mentioned during the interview that he killed anyone other than Rush.

Investigator Morton testified that defendant mentioned something about a stabbing in Down Neck in Newark or by Popeye's Chicken and another crime. According to the investigator, defendant volunteered information about his "involvement" in the Popeye's crime; the investigator characterized the claimed involvement as having knowledge of the crime but did not remember any claim by defendant that he perpetrated the crime. Investigator Morton further testified about a follow-up meeting with Detective DeMaio and Investigator Berrian in which he explained they "were looking into whether [defendant], in fact, could have [committed the Popeye's crime]" and they told him defendant was incarcerated at the time.

Edward Gordon, a former Essex County Assistant Prosecutor assigned to the homicide squad, who was not present during defendant's interrogation, testified as to a vague recollection about the Newark police contacting local authorities down south in response to a claim by defendant that he committed a homicide there.*fn4 He also testified he learned that defendant claimed to have committed a homicide at Popeye's or McDonald's in Newark and was going to be charged with the killing until it was determined he was incarcerated at the time and could not have committed the crime. Gordon had previously conveyed this information to defense counsel in "casual conversation" unrelated to the investigation. He jokingly commented at the time that he could have closed out all of his homicides with defendant.

The defense retained Dr. Harris to assess defendant's claim of false confession in the context of his longstanding history of mental illness. Dr. Harris performed clinical evaluations of defendant on June 27, 2003 and October 29, 2004, during which defendant informed him he had confessed to a variety of other crimes during the interrogation process. He also reviewed defendant's extensive medical and psychiatric history, information about the interrogation (including a letter from defense counsel detailing the conversation with Gordon) and defendant's taped and written confession to Rush's murder.*fn5

Drawing on his training and experience as a forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Harris diagnosed defendant's personality disorders, particularly his narcissistic personality disorder, and opined that the symptoms of the disorders made defendant vulnerable to giving the police false confessions. His report concluded, in pertinent part:

Mr. King reported he felt important and wanted to impress and help the police. He reported that he felt that they treated him specially and that they respected him. He felt that they worked as a team.

Mr. King's personality problems made him vulnerable during the interrogation. His need for admiration, special treatment and his grandiosity were able to be used very effectively against him allowing him to confess to one unsolved crime after another.

While it is not necessary to have a psychiatric illness to be susceptible to an interrogation, Mr. King's emotional problems made him particularly vulnerable.

It appears that Mr. King was at great risk to supply the investigators with many of the confessions that they wanted. It appears that he gave a number of false confessions. It is my opinion, Mr. King's report that he falsely confessed is consistent with his psychiatric disorders described above.

The State moved to bar the defense expert from testifying about defendant's personality disorders, claiming it was not relevant and not admissible because the expert failed to provide a scientific basis specifically linking the disorder to the making of a false confession.

At the pre-trial hearing, Dr. Harris testified that defendant has had forty to fifty psychiatric hospitalizations since the age of nine. Dr. Harris diagnosed the thirty-two-year-old defendant as suffering from a longstanding Axis II narcissistic and antisocial personality disorder with characteristics of a borderline personality disorder at the time of the interrogation. He opined that these personality disorders affected defendant's conduct during the interrogation.

Dr. Harris explained the characteristics and diagnostic criteria of the personality disorders as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IVTR), a recognized authority published by the American Psychiatric Association. More particularly, he explained that Axis II personality disorders are enduring illnesses, and are inflexible ways that individuals relate to others and view themselves in the world. Referring to the DSM, he explained that persons suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder have grandiose feelings about themselves, have "an idea about their importance that is well beyond their actual importance," require excessive admiration, and have a need to feel powerful. They also "try to associate themselves with people who they think are of high status and will confer upon them an experience that they're important as well." Furthermore, they lack empathy, are exploitive and engage in manipulation. Dr. Harris further explained that people with narcissistic personality disorders have "a great deal of difficulty maintaining their self-esteem" so they resort to a variety of behaviors to rehabilitate themselves.*fn6

Relying on his clinical interview of defendant, Dr. Harris characterized him as demonstrating these traits when interrogated. Dr. Harris explained:

[Defendant] reported that immediately he wanted to and he planned that he confessed to everything. . . . "I was confessing to everything. I ...

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