On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Indictment No. 1194-07-03.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: S.L. Reisner, J.A.D
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges S.L. Reisner, Seltzer and King.
Defendant, Wilberto Rodriguez, appeals from his conviction for reckless manslaughter, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4b(1), possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4d, and unlawful possession of a weapon, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5d, as well as from the fifteen-year sentence imposed.
Because the trial court erroneously instructed the jury that they should not consider self-defense with respect to manslaughter and failed to charge the jury on the issue of defendant's honest but mistaken belief in the need to act in self-defense as it related to the weapons offenses, we reverse the convictions and remand for re-trial.
Self-defense was the central issue at trial. There is no dispute that defendant was in the W.L. Mini-Market in Jersey City, attempting to sell two car radios to the store's employees and customers. Anthony Hobbs entered the store to buy pantyhose for his girlfriend. Defendant asked Hobbs if he wanted to buy the radios. Hobbs told defendant that he was not interested in buying the radios but if he wanted them, he would beat up defendant and take them. According to at least one eyewitness, Hobbs then threatened to "kick [defendant's] ass" and told defendant to come outside. Hobbs left and defendant remained in the store.
A few minutes later, Hobbs came back in the store and asked an employee, Pedro Castro, if Castro knew defendant. Hobbs then immediately began an unprovoked attack on defendant. Castro testified that Hobbs punched defendant in the head. Another witness testified that Hobbs forcefully grabbed defendant by the shoulder and tried to drag him out of the store. Defendant responded by stabbing Hobbs with a folding knife. The knife was described as "small" and as about six inches long in total. It was never recovered.*fn1 All of the witnesses agreed that Hobbs, who was twenty-three years old, was the aggressor and that he was considerably taller than defendant, who was a small man in his late thirties.
Hobbs ran in a circle around to the back of the store and then toward the front of the store where he ran out the door. He ran a block to the home he shared with his girlfriend, where he collapsed. He died shortly thereafter in the hospital. According to the State's medical expert, decedent suffered a stab wound two to four inches deep which severed the right coronary artery and punctured the heart. Death was caused by an accumulation of blood within the sac surrounding the heart, which eventually caused the heart to stop beating. The expert opined that a person with that type of wound would not die immediately and would still be able to run as defendant did.
Defendant remained in the store until a regular customer drove him away from the scene at the request of the store manager, who was concerned that Hobbs would return to continue his attack on defendant. No one who witnessed the attack believed that Hobbs was seriously injured.
Although defendant did not testify, the State introduced his tape recorded confession, in which he described Hobbs' threat to wait outside the store for him, take the radios from him and beat him up. Defendant "[t]old [Hobbs] leave me alone. I don't want no problems." He stayed in the store when Hobbs left, but Hobbs came back into the store and attacked him. Defendant insisted that he had acted in self-defense as Hobbs, who towered over him, was attempting to beat and rob him. Defendant stated that he "hit" Hobbs with the knife but did not realize he had "stuck" Hobbs. The transcript of his confession indicates that defendant was crying as he insisted that he "didn't mean to do this."
Officer D'Angelo, who took defendant's statement, confirmed that defendant was emotional but "quite straightforward" in his demeanor. He was asked on cross-examination: "Did it sound or seem to you as though [defendant's] answers were contrived or purposefully designed to mislead?" D'Angelo answered "[n]o."
The only witness who addressed the issue of defendant's possible avenue of escape from Hobbs testified that there was only one way out of the store, through the front door. He indicated that there was an emergency exit at the back, but that it only worked in emergencies. It was not clear from his testimony whether it was locked. There was no testimony that defendant knew about the emergency exit, although there was testimony that defendant had been in the store on five or six occasions.
Defendant raises the following issues on appeal:
POINT I: THE JUDGE'S CHARGE ON SELF-DEFENSE AS TO THE KILLING WAS CONFUSING AND INACCURATE AND DENIED THE DEFENDANT'S RIGHT TO A FAIR TRIAL. (Partially Raised Below).
A. The Judge's Charge Failed To Relate Self-Defense To The Lesser Included Offenses And Repeatedly Asserted That Self-Defense Had No ...