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State v. Salas

July 3, 2007

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
JUAN C. SALAS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, No. 03-06-02075.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted April 18, 2007

Before Judges Wefing and Yannotti.

Tried to a jury, defendant was convicted of two counts of murder, a crime of the first degree, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1) and (2); one count of attempted murder, a crime of the first degree, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-1, 2C:11-3(a)(1) and (2); one count of conspiracy, a crime of the first degree, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2; one count of possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, a crime of the second degree, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(a); one count of unlawful possession of a weapon, a crime of the third degree, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b); and one count of hindering apprehension, a crime of the third degree, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3(b)(1). At sentencing, the trial court merged defendant's conviction for possession of a weapon for unlawful purpose and sentenced defendant to forty years in prison for one count of murder and a consecutive thirty years in prison for the second count of murder, both subject to the No Early Release Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2. The balance of defendant's sentences were ordered to be served concurrently with the first sentence for murder. Defendant has appealed his convictions and sentence. After reviewing the record in light of the contentions advanced on appeal, we affirm.

The State presented evidence that defendant and his companions took umbrage at the intrusion of others into what they deemed their territory in Camden for the sale of narcotics. Their solution was to "clear the block." This they did with a hail of bullets from at least five different weapons. When the shooting ended, Richard Williams was dead and Jabbar Lee died shortly thereafter. David Williams (no relation to Richard) had been shot in the back, but he survived. David testified, as did Joseph Quinones. Mr. Quinones had been with defendant and his companions as they planned what to do and saw them arm themselves with weapons supplied by defendant's uncle. We infer from various comments by counsel during the course of the trial, in the absence of the jury, that defendant's uncle was known as a narcotics trafficker.

One of the guns used was a semiautomatic rifle similar to an AK-47. Police who responded to the scene recovered more than seventy shell casings and projectiles. Investigator James Joyce of the New Jersey State Police testified as an expert in ballistics and firearm identification. According to Investigator Joyce, at least five separate guns were involved in the incident, and there may have been as many as eight.

Defendant was only seventeen years old at the time of the shootings. He was taken into custody several months later and, in the presence of his mother, supplied a statement about his involvement in this incident, which was played for the jury. According to that statement, the shootings were planned by Angel Mendoza, who recruited defendant and his brother, Jose Egron. Defendant in his statement said that Mendoza supplied the guns, not defendant's uncle. He said that Mendoza instructed him and his brother to shoot at the victims, with the expectation that they would run toward where Mendoza would be stationed and that Mendoza would then kill them. Defendant said in his statement that he went along with the plan because he was afraid of what Mendoza would do to him if he did not.

Defendant testified at his trial and recanted his statement. He said he only gave the statement because the police would not let his mother leave until he did so. His mother testified to the same effect. Defendant testified he had no involvement with the shootings although he could not recall where he was when they occurred.

Defendant raises two points on appeal.

POINT I

DEFENDANT WAS DENIED A FAIR TRIAL AND DUE PROCESS OF LAW WHEN THE PROSECUTOR TOLD THE JURY DURING TRIAL AND SUMMATION THAT MR. SALAS HAD GROWN UP IN A VIOLENT AND STRANGE CULTURE, THEREBY INFLUENCING THE JURY'S PERCEPTION OF MR. SALAS AS A VIOLENT AND STRANGE MAN, RATHER THAN AS A 17-YEAR-OLD JUVENILE. U.S. Const., Amends. V, VI, XIV, N.J. Const. Art. I, Para. 10. (Not Raised Below)

POINT II

THE TRIAL COURT ERRED, AND CONSEQUENTLY IMPOSED AN EXCESSIVE SENTENCE, IN REFUSING TO ORDER CONCURRENT SENTENCES FOR THE FIRST-DEGREE MURDER CONVICTIONS, AND IN IMPOSING GREATER THAN ...


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