June 29, 2007
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
AZRIEL R. BRIDGE, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County, Indictment No. 04-12-1822.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted May 30, 2007
Before Judges Weissbard and Graves.
On June 9, 2004, eight days prior to his eighteenth birthday on June 17, 2004, defendant Azriel R. Bridge knowingly and purposely caused the death of Shirley Reuter, a seventy- seven-year-old resident of Dover Township*fn1 in Ocean County.
Defendant voluntarily waived jurisdiction from the Family Part to the Law Division pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-27 and R. 5:22-1. Following the denial of his motion to suppress his lengthy written confession to the police, defendant entered a conditional guilty plea to first-degree murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11- 3(a)(1). On January 6, 2006, defendant was sentenced to a fifty-five-year prison term with an eighty-five percent period of parole ineligibility under the No Early Release Act (NERA), N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2. The remaining counts of the indictment were dismissed in accordance with the negotiated plea agreement. We affirm.
On appeal, defendant presents the following arguments:
THE DEFENDANT'S CUSTODIAL STATEMENT SHOULD HAVE BEEN SUPPRESSED BECAUSE THE STATE FAILED TO PROVE BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT THAT HE WAS COMPETENT TO GIVE A KNOWING AND INTELLIGENT WAIVER OF HIS MIRANDA RIGHTS, NOR DID IT PROVE THAT HIS STATEMENT WAS VOLUNTARY. U.S. CONST. AMENDS. V, XIV; N.J. CONST. ART. I, ¶¶¶ 1, 7, AND 10.
DEFENDANT'S STATEMENTS MUST BE SUPPRESSED BECAUSE HE WAS A JUVENILE WHO WAS INTERROGATED WITHOUT PARENTAL PRESENCE OR EVEN AN ATTEMPT ON THE PART OF THE POLICE TO CONTACT HIS PARENT.
DEFENDANT'S SENTENCE IS EXCESSIVE.
In a thirty-two-page written statement to the police on June 11, 2004, defendant stated he was selling magazines in Toms River on June 9, 2004, when Shirley Reuter allowed him to enter her home to use the bathroom. While he was in the house, defendant saw a checkbook on a table and decided to put it in his pocket. However, the victim noticed defendant put something in his pocket and she confronted him about it. As Ms. Reuter reached for the checkbook, defendant stated he pushed her hard enough that "her feet actually came out from underneath her," and as she fell, she hit her head on the corner of a table. As the victim lay on the floor, defendant struck her three times "on the side of her face" with a "paddle"*fn2 from the fireplace to "wake her up." After the paddle broke, defendant used a poker from the fireplace "to poke her to see [if she would] wake up." When the victim did not wake up, defendant put the bloody poker "back where it was," and he got a knife from the kitchen, which he used to "poke" the victim in the neck. Defendant stated the victim's body quivered "when the knife went through her throat."
At the pre-trial Miranda*fn3 hearing, Investigator Joseph Mitchell, a member of the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office, testified that he was assigned to investigate the murder of Shirley Reuter on June 10, 2004. On the morning of June 11, 2004, Mitchell learned the Manchester Police Department "had contact with a white van with California plates on it that was carrying magazine solicitation people," and defendant was issued a ticket for soliciting without a permit. Mitchell also learned that when a Dover Township police officer had stopped defendant to ask his purpose in the area on June 9, 2004, defendant had no identification, but he advised the police officer his date of birth was June 17, 1985, making him eighteen years old. Upon receiving this information, Investigator Mitchell informed other law enforcement agencies in the area that he sought to interview the occupants of the white van in regard to Ms. Reuter's murder. The Manchester Police Department responded to his inquiry and informed him that, in the course of issuing a summons for soliciting without a permit, they learned the magazine salespeople were staying at the "Wyndham Hotel near the Newark Airport." After Elizabeth Police had located the van, Mitchell and Detective Ray Maloney of the Dover Township Police went to the hotel along with other investigators from the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office.
When Mitchell and Maloney arrived at the Wyndham Hotel, at approximately 12:45 p.m. on June 11, 2004, they learned defendant had been arrested by Elizabeth Police on an outstanding warrant from Illinois. Defendant was subsequently transported to the Elizabeth Police Headquarters for questioning. At the police station, Mitchell and Maloney asked defendant if he would speak to them about the "death of an elderly female which occurred down in Toms River." When defendant agreed to speak with the officers, he was read his rights from "a Dover Township standardized rights waiver form," and at approximately 1:05 p.m. on June 11, 2004, defendant signed the waiver form.
Defendant did not produce any identification, however, he told the officers he was born on June 15, 1985, and he was eighteen years old. Defendant reported he was employed by Phoenix Imageries, and he had been in the area for about a week selling magazines. Defendant explained he traveled with a group selling magazines door-to-door, and he had a weekly quota to meet. Defendant initially denied having any contact with the victim, however, about an hour into the interview, Investigator Mitchell learned from another officer that on June 9, 2004, defendant had given his supervisor a check for magazine subscriptions written on the account of David Reuter, the victim's son. When confronted with this information, defendant confessed to the murder, and he gave a detailed audio-taped statement to the police. The statement began at 4:20 p.m. and concluded at 4:43 p.m. After defendant's statement was transcribed, he was videotaped as he reviewed the transcription and initialed each page of his written statement.
The Miranda hearing took place on August 2 and 3, 2005, and the trial court rendered a comprehensive eighteen-page oral decision on August 4, 2005. The court's findings and conclusions included the following:
The pretaped questioning lasted for approximately three hours and was conducted in a calm manner and fashion. There was neither shouting or threats, coercion or promises. There were four breaks taken during that period. Bridge was offered both bathroom privileges, beverages and cigarettes. He declined the bathroom and beverages. He accepted the cigarettes and had three [or] four of them. The taped statement was started at 4:20 p.m. and concluded at 4:43 p.m.
On the tape, Bridge acknowledges, again, being informed of his rights, understanding them, and waiving them. He again states he is 18 years of age, and his date of birth is June 17th, 1985. He speaks in a calm voice, has no difficulty understanding the questions, and is responsive to them. In describing how he killed Ms. Reuter, he becomes a bit emotional. He indicates his willingness to review and sign the statement if he finds it correct. Following the taping, Bridge was processed by the Elizabeth Police Department on the fugitive arrest and released to Mitchell and Maloney for transport to Toms River.
On arrival in Toms River, the tape was turned over for a transcription. Bridge agreed to show the officers his route of travel, following the killing of Ms. Reuter, and where he had thrown the checkbook, and proceeded to do so. After that, they returned to the Dover Township Police Department and awaited the transcription of the tape.
While waiting, Bridge had the use of the bathroom and ate two slices of pizza and drank a bottle of water. When the tape was transcribed, the review of the transcription by Bridge was videotaped. Bridge's review started at 11:44 p.m. and concluded at 12:21 a.m.
Bridge is observed on the videotape taking his time reviewing each page and initialing and dating the bottom of each page, including the page on which he told the officers that he was 18 years old and his date of birth was June 17th, 1985. He's observed drinking a bottle of water while reading the transcript. He is also seen making a correction on page 18 of the transcript.
Every law-enforcement officer involved in this case who had contact with Bridge had been told by him he was 18, and he would turn 19 in 8 days. Bridge carried no I.D. with him which could be checked . . . [T]he arrest report completed by the Elizabeth Police Department indicates: age, 18; height, 5-foot, 10-inches tall; and, weight, 155 pounds. There was nothing about his physical appearance which would indicate that he was lying about his age.
Additionally, Bridge, himself, had eight prior arrests in Illinois between November, 2000, and April, 2004, the charges being: Harassment; battery with bodily harm; theft; burglary; theft; battery with bodily harm; theft by deceptive practices; and theft of lost or mislaid property. He was not in unchartered [sic] waters and had familiarity with the system.
Only he can tell us why he lied about his age, but the fact of the matter is that he did lie. And most certainly it would be totally inappropriate to . . . have that redound to his benefit and to hold that the police violated his rights to which Bridge, himself, indicated he was not entitled.
Considering the totality of circumstances, I find that the [S]tate has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant was apprised of his constitutional rights, that he understood those rights, and that he intelligently and voluntarily waived his rights and gave a voluntary statement. The motion to suppress the statement is denied, and it will be admitted into evidence at the trial of Azriel Bridge.
The court also carefully evaluated the expert testimony provided by Dr. Robert Sadoff and Dr. Kenneth Weiss, and it explained why it found the testimony of Dr. Sadoff, who testified for the State, to be more persuasive. Based on our review of the record, we are convinced the trial court's findings of fact and conclusions of law are supported by substantial credible evidence in the record. State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 472 (1999); State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 162 (1964); see also State v. Watson, 261 N.J. Super. 169, 177 (App. Div. 1992) (applying substantial credible evidence standard to decision to admit statements), certif. denied, 133 N.J. 441 (1993). We therefore affirm the order denying defendant's motion to suppress substantially for the reasons stated by Judge Turnbach in his comprehensive oral decision on August 4, 2005. Defendant also claims his sentence is excessive. At sentencing on January 6, 2006, defendant's attorney urged the court to find that defendant's psychological and intellectual difficulties were mitigating factors pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:44- 1(b)(4). Defense counsel also urged the court to find that defendant's youth was a mitigating factor under N.J.S.A. 2C:44- 1(b)(13):
Judge, Azriel Bridge is 19 years old. At the time of this incident he was a juvenile, one week short of being an adult. He was born to a woman who was 15 years old at the time she gave birth. And since age nine to 16-and-a-half[,] he has been hospitalized at least nine times. All the hospitalizations were in various psychiatric units in Illinois, Hard Grove, River Edge[,] and Nolan Treatment Center.
Your Honor sat through the two-or three-day suppression hearing in this matter. Your Honor's had the opportunity to review the expert reports and evaluations that were produced at that hearing. I don't think anybody disagrees that the results of those analyses, one as early as 2002, show that Mr. Bridge has various difficulties both intellectually and psychologically.
Some of those reports indicate that he has a serious impairment in his ability to think logically and coherently. Psychological tests reveal that he is borderline mentally challenged.
Nevertheless, the trial court stated it "specifically reject[ed] each and every one of [the mitigating factors]" presented on behalf of defendant:
Number two, that you didn't contemplate that your conduct would cause or threaten serious harm is belied by the savage nature of the attack and the numerous wounds and injuries inflicted upon the victim. Obviously, you had to realize that you were causing serious harm and death.
Four, there were no substantial grounds tending to excuse or justify your conduct present in this case or evidenced by anything submitted to this [c]court.
Seven, you do have a prior history of delinquency. So that's not a mitigating factor here.
Eleven, that your imprisonment would entail excessive hardship to yourself or your dependents. Well, no. Imprisonment is not going to entail excessive hardship to you, given the nature of what you've done. And it will protect the public.
And [twelve], under the law there is no willingness present here to cooperate with law enforcement authorities. So there is absolutely nothing present here by way of mitigation.
The murder of Ms. Reuter, a 77-year-old grandmother, was particularly heinous, cruel, depraved[,] and senseless. She was a stranger to the defendant. There was no reason, real or imagined, for the defendant to do what he did. Indeed, while a stranger, she allowed this young man into her house to give him a drink of water at his request. She was a good Samaritan.
And you, Mr. Bridge, seeing a check[book] lying on the table, decided to and did murder her in the cruelest of manners.
The trial court followed the sentencing guidelines, and the sentence imposed is not so clearly unreasonable "as to shock the judicial conscience." State v. Natale, 184 N.J. 458, 489 (2005) (quoting State v. Roth, 95 N.J. 334, 365 (1984)).