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State v. Williams

April 11, 2007

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
JAYSON S. WILLIAMS, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

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).

This appeal requires the Court to consider whether evidence of post-shooting conduct is admissible as a demonstration of consciousness of guilt that proves the crime of reckless manslaughter.

Williams was charged in the February 2002 shooting death of Costas "Gus" Christofi. He also was charged with post-conviction offenses of hindering apprehension and tampering with evidence and with a witness. After a lengthy trial, Williams was convicted on all counts concerning his post-shooting conduct. He was acquitted of aggravated manslaughter and aggravated assault, but the jury could not reach a verdict on the charge of reckless manslaughter. The court therefore declared a mistrial on the reckless manslaughter count.

Facing a retrial on the charge of reckless manslaughter, Williams filed a motion to exclude evidence of his conduct immediately after the shooting. The trial court held the evidence to be inadmissible. Its determination was grounded on the conclusion that post-crime evidence of consciousness of guilt is not relevant to demonstrate recklessness. It also found that the evidence would be unduly prejudicial. In an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division affirmed. The Supreme Court granted leave to appeal.

For context, the Court recounts the circumstances surrounding Christofi's shooting as presented during the first trial. On the evening of February 13, 2002, Jayson S. Williams and his long-time friend Kent Culuko attended a Harlem Globetrotters basketball game. Afterwards, Williams invited some of the players to join them for dinner. Williams arranged for the players to be picked up at their hotel in a van driven by Christofi. The group left the restaurant at approximately 1:00 a.m., and traveled to Williams' home. At a certain point, Williams and several others were in his bedroom with Christofi. Williams retrieved a shotgun from a gun cabinet. As he wielded the shotgun in Christofi's direction, the weapon discharged. The shotgun blast struck Christofi in the chest, killing him.

According to the witnesses, Williams took several steps immediately following the shooting to conceal his involvement in Christofi's death. He wiped the weapon with a cloth to remove his fingerprints, and pressed Christofi's fingers and palm on the weapon. Williams also destroyed evidence of Christofi's blood on himself, changing his clothes and giving the ones he had been wearing to Culuko to discard. Finally, witnesses testified that Williams instructed them to lie to police by reporting that Christofi committed suicide. It is this post-shooting evidence that Williams moved to exclude from the retrial.

HELD: The post-crime consciousness of guilt evidence is relevant to the mental state of Williams at the time of the shooting and is admissible to prove the crime of reckless manslaughter.

1. The admissibility of other-crimes evidence is governed by Evidence Rule 404(b). In State v. Cofield, 127 N.J. 328 (1992), this Court framed a four-pronged test to determine whether to admit other-crimes evidence under N.J.R.E. 404(b). The Cofield test requires that: 1) evidence of the other crime must be relevant to a material issue; 2) it must be similar in kind and reasonably close in time to the offense charged; 3) evidence of the other crime must be clear and convincing; and 4) the probative value of the evidence must not be outweighed by its apparent prejudice. Williams's state of mind at the time Christofi was shot is the material issue in dispute in the retrial. Prong one of the Cofield test requires examination of the evidence for its relevance to this issue. (pp. 9-10)

2. In this case, the State must prove that Williams recklessly caused the death of Christofi. The element of criminal recklessness differs from knowing culpability, in that the latter requires a greater degree of certainty that a particular result will occur. Purposely and knowingly states of mind involve near certainty, while recklessness involves an awareness of a risk that is of a probability rather than a certainty. Nevertheless, even when recklessness is the mens rea element of the crime charged, a defendant's knowledge or awareness is material to the determination of culpability. When the State alleges criminal recklessness, it must demonstrate through legally competent proofs that a defendant had knowledge or awareness of, and then consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk. (pp. 10-13)

3. Proof of a defendant's mental state often must be inferred from the circumstances. Courts admit circumstantial evidence that has a tendency to shed light on a defendant's mental state. Conduct that occurs after the offense circumstantially may support inferences about a defendant's state of mind. Specifically, courts have recognized the relevance of post-crime conduct to a defendant's mental state when the conduct demonstrates consciousness of guilt. Numerous other courts that have addressed relevance challenges to consciousness of guilt evidence in recklessness settings have found post-crime evidence to be relevant and admissible. (p. 13-20)

4. In this case, the post-shooting conduct of Williams can support inferences having a logical tendency to prove that Williams was aware that the victim's injuries were not the product of an accident, but were caused by criminal recklessness. Such evidence could support a jury finding that Williams had a subjective awareness of the risk -- an element essential to establish the underlying mens rea of recklessness. (pp. 20-22)

5. Because of the age of this case and for purposes of judical economy, the Court is reluctant to send the matter back for reexamination of the evidence in light of the other Rule 404(b) requirements. The Court therefore addresses the remaining Cofield prongs. The key issue in respect of these other prongs is clearly the weighing of the evidence's prejudicial effect as against its probative value. It is difficult to conjure a description of evidence that a jury might find to demonstrate consciousness of guilt that did not have a prejudicial effect. However, a jury could find that the conduct provides substantial evidence of Williams's immediate awareness that his actions were wrongful, and created an unjustifiable risk of harm to his victim. The Court finds that the evidence's probative value is not outweighed by undue prejudice, and concludes that the information should not be kept from the jury. Williams may provide the jury with alternative explanations for his post-shooting acts. The court must instruct the jury that the evidence may be used only to assess Williams's mental state. (pp. 22-27)

The judgment of the Appellate division is REVERSED, and the matter is REMANDED to the Law Division for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

CHIEF JUSTICE ZAZZALI has filed a separate, DISSENTING opinion, in which JUSTICES LONG and WALLACE join, expressing his view th at the prejudice of the evidence is overwhelming and eclipses any relevance. He would afford deference to the trial court's evidentiary ruling under the applicable abuse of discretion standard and affirm.

JUSTICES ALBIN, RIVERA-SOTO, and HOENS join in JUSTICE LaVECCHIA's opinion. CHIEF JUSTICE ZAZZALI has filed a separate, dissenting opinion, in which JUSTICES LONG and WALLACE join.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice LaVECCHIA

Argued October 30, 2006

In connection with the February 2002 shooting death of Costas "Gus" Christofi, defendant Jayson Williams was charged with aggravated manslaughter, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4(a)(1) (count one); reckless manslaughter, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4(b)(1) (count two); possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(a) (count three); aggravated assault by knowingly pointing a firearm at or in the direction of another, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(b)(4) (count four); hindering apprehension, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3(b) (count five); tampering with a witness, N.J.S.A. 2C:28-5(a) (count six); tampering with evidence, N.J.S.A. 2C:28-6(1) (count seven); and fabricating physical evidence, N.J.S.A. 2C:28-6(2) (count eight).*fn1 After a lengthy trial, defendant was convicted on all counts concerning his post-shooting conduct (counts five through eight). The jury acquitted defendant of aggravated manslaughter, possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, and aggravated assault by knowingly pointing a firearm at or in the direction of another, but could not reach a verdict on reckless manslaughter. The court therefore accepted the jury's verdict on all of the counts except for reckless manslaughter and declared a mistrial as to that count.

Facing retrial on the reckless manslaughter charge, defendant filed a motion to exclude evidence of his conduct immediately after the shooting.*fn2 Defendant asserted that his post-shooting conduct is irrelevant to whether he acted recklessly at the time of the shooting, and that the evidence is unduly prejudicial. The State argued that, notwithstanding that the crime involves a reckless mens rea element, the evidence is relevant as demonstrative of a consciousness of guilt that is probative of defendant's state of mind during the shooting incident. The State also disputed that the evidence would cause undue prejudice.

The trial court held the evidence to be inadmissible. Its determination was grounded on the conclusion that post-crime evidence of consciousness of guilt is not relevant to demonstrate recklessness. Moreover, the court found that introduction of the post-shooting-conduct evidence would be unduly prejudicial to defendant in the retrial, notwithstanding the court's contrary conclusion at the first trial when it declined to sever the post-shooting counts from the shooting counts. In an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division affirmed.*fn3

We granted the State leave to appeal, 187 N.J. 487 (2006), and now, we reverse.

I.

A.

For context, we recount briefly the circumstances surrounding Christofi's shooting as presented during the first trial. The events transpired during the evening of February 13, 2002, when defendant, his long-time friend Kent Culuko, and several others attended a Harlem Globetrotters basketball game held at Lehigh University. During halftime, defendant invited the Globetrotters players to join him for dinner. Four members of the team accepted -- Curly "Boo" Johnson, Leonard Benoit Benjamin, Christopher Morris, and Paul Gaffney. Defendant arranged for the players to be picked up at their hotel and driven to the agreed-upon restaurant by a hired van. The driver of that van was Gus Christofi.

The engagement had an inauspicious start for Christofi. During dinner, while defendant and his guests ate and drank, Christofi, who was waiting in the restaurant, was subjected to loud embarrassing remarks by defendant questioning Christofi's right to be present in the restaurant. Defendant ultimately said he was joking, but only at the end of the humiliating experience.

The group left the restaurant at approximately 1:00 a.m. and traveled to defendant's home. After a tour of defendant's property, the Globetrotters players, Christofi, and others entered the house and eventually congregated in a study attached to defendant's bedroom. At a certain point, defendant, Benjamin, Morris, Gaffney, and Christofi were all in defendant's bedroom. Culuko stood in the entranceway between the study and the bedroom, and Johnson remained in the study. While in his bedroom, defendant retrieved a Browning Citori shotgun that was kept in a gun cabinet. As defendant wielded the shotgun in Christofi's direction, the weapon discharged. The circumstances of the shotgun's discharge will be the focus of the retrial; however, we note at this time that there was testimony that defendant uttered a curse at Christofi moments before the shot was fired. The shotgun blast struck Christofi in the chest, killing him.

Culuko, Benjamin, and Morris witnessed the fatal shot. Gaffney and Johnson did not see the shooting, but they did observe defendant's conduct immediately following the shooting. All five testified for the State during the first trial. Their testimony established that defendant took several steps immediately following the shooting to conceal his involvement in Christofi's death. According to their collective testimony, after Christofi was struck by the shotgun blast defendant dropped to his knees and exclaimed, "Oh my God, what just happened," "Sh*t," and "I f**ked up my life." As Christofi lay bleeding and gasping for air, Gaffney and Culuko attempted to help him by checking for a pulse. Defendant, on the other hand, tended to his gun, wiping off the weapon with a cloth to remove his fingerprints. Holding the shotgun in one hand, defendant moved it into Christofi's hand, pressing Christofi's fingers and palm on the weapon. Defendant also destroyed evidence of Christofi's blood on himself, including changing his clothes and giving the ones he had been wearing to Culuko to discard. The witnesses testified that defendant instructed them to lie to the police by reporting that Christofi committed suicide. When the police arrived, defendant denied involvement in the shooting.

It is that post-shooting evidence that defendant moved to exclude from the retrial.

B.

As noted, defendant sought to sever the post-shooting counts from the shooting counts in his first trial.*fn4 He argued that his cover-up conduct had no relevance to the shooting and did not bear on whether he shot Christofi recklessly -- the mens rea required for counts one and two of the indictment. Rather, defendant asserted that the material issue at trial would be whether the shooting was the result of an accident or reckless behavior. As to that, defendant argued, the cover-up constitutes an unrelated and separate occurrence that does not illuminate his state of mind during the earlier events. As for count four (aggravated assault by knowingly pointing a gun at or in the direction of another), defendant conceded that the evidence was not unrelated to the intent element applicable to that offense. Instead, he argued that the prejudicial effect of the evidence outweighed its probative value.

The trial court denied the motion to sever, noting that the indictment included at least one specific intent crime, that judicial economy favored trying the counts together, that the State could choose not to accept defendant's offer to stipulate on his identification as the shooter thereby permitting the introduction of relevant evidence on that issue at trial, and that the post-crime conduct constituted evidence of consciousness of guilt. In ruling on the second severance motion, the court again noted that the post-shooting conduct "would also be admissible at [a] separate trial in demonstrating consciousness of guilt, state of mind."

Accordingly, the court admitted the evidence with a limiting instruction. The trial resulted in defendant's acquittal on the aggravated manslaughter charge (count one) and two other shooting-related charges (counts three and four). One shooting charge was unresolved -- the reckless manslaughter charge.

Defendant again sought to bar evidence of the cover-up conduct, this time from the State's re-prosecution of the remaining reckless manslaughter charge. He also sought to bar evidence of two prior gun-discharge incidents in which he had been involved.*fn5 The trial court granted the applications and, pursuant to a Rule 404(b) analysis, barred the evidence defendant sought to exclude. The State filed an interlocutory appeal and the Appellate Division affirmed, also employing a Rule 404(b) analysis. Although we did not grant leave to appeal from the panel's affirmance of the exclusion of defendant's prior gun-discharge incidents, we did agree to review the exclusion of defendant's cover-up conduct for which he has now been convicted. The admissibility of that other-crimes evidence is governed by Evidence Rule 404(b), as the trial court and the Appellate Division correctly understood.

II.

Evidence Rule 404(b) ...


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