On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Salem County, 05-04-0129.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 1, 2007
Before Judges Lintner, Graves and Alvarez.
Defendant, Henry L. Wright, III, was convicted by a jury of first-degree purposeful murder (Count One), N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(1); second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose (Count Two), N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4; third-degree possession of a handgun without a permit (Count Three), N.J.S.A. 2C:58-4 and N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5b; and second-degree certain persons not to have a weapon (Count Four), N.J.S.A. 2C:39-7.*fn1
The judge imposed a thirty-year term of incarceration with a thirty-year parole bar on the murder conviction. He merged the second count and fourth count convictions with the third count conviction for which he imposed a twenty-year term with a ten-year period of parole ineligibility to run concurrently with the sentence imposed on the murder conviction. Defendant appeals and we affirm.
In the early morning hours of January 9, 2004, defendant and his friend, Shareef Clayton, engaged in a dispute with Sholomo David at Whispering Waters, a local housing project, over the right to sell drugs. At that time, defendant and David threw punches at each other. Sometime around midnight on January 10, at the Foxhole Bar in Salem, David snuck up on Clayton, punched him in the mouth, splitting Clayton's lip, and ran out of the bar, accompanied by his girlfriend, Sharon Washington. Clayton remained at the bar where he washed his face. Shortly thereafter, defendant and Sarah Perry arrived at the Foxhole. Defendant became furious when he saw Clayton was injured. Defendant, Clayton, and Perry then left the bar.
Perry drove them to the Westside Court apartment complex where David lived. On their way to Westside Court, defendant and Clayton had a discussion about which of them would confront David. When they arrived at the complex, however, defendant announced that he would confront David. He left the car and headed toward the building where apartment number 42 was located. A few minutes later, Clayton and Perry heard gunshots. Defendant returned to the car, saying, "I got him, I got him."*fn2
Defendant, who had a handgun, told Perry to drive away. She complied and dropped both Clayton and defendant off in front of Whispering Waters.
The same morning, Lucillia Caudle arrived home from work to discover that the doors of her apartment at 40 Westside Court were locked from the inside and that her sons were not answering when she knocked. In addition, she noticed what looked like bullet holes through her front window. Caudle went a few blocks to a local deli where she saw Sergeant Vanaman of the Salem City Police Department and asked for his help. After calling for backup, Vanaman accompanied Caudle back to her apartment where they met Officer Smith. Smith cut a hole in the back screen door, allowing Caudle to use her key to open the door. Caudle, followed by the two officers, entered the apartment.
In the living room, they found the body of Caudle's fourteen-year-old son, Cordero. He had been dead for some time from an apparent gunshot wound to the head. The officers then secured the scene for crime scene investigators. The wall across the room from the front window had four bullet holes in it. The shell casings retrieved from outside the front window were from a 9mm pistol. There were no fingerprints obtained from the bullets or shell casings.
Thereafter, the police canvassed the neighborhood looking for witnesses. David and Washington lived in the apartment at 42 Westside Court, which shares its front steps with the victim's apartment. When interviewed by the police the next day, Washington told the police that she thought the bullets had been meant for her boyfriend, David, and not for Cordero Caudle. She indicated that her boyfriend had had an altercation with defendant and Clayton. The police began to investigate the homicide in light of Washington's statement and looked for suspects connected with David, as opposed to Cordero Caudle.
Meanwhile, defendant met with Perry the day after the shooting, and gave her a story to tell police if she was questioned. Perry voluntarily appeared at the Salem police headquarters on January 16, 2004, and gave two statements to the police. The first statement was the version defendant had asked her to give. In a second statement, she related the events of January 9 and 10, 2004, including information about the physical altercations and the shooting at Westside Court. In yet a third statement given two years later, she mentioned the gun.
Clayton confronted defendant within a day of the shooting to inform him that David was not dead, and that, in fact, a fourteen-year-old boy had been shot and killed at Westside Court. Defendant's response was that "it was a mistake." Clayton appeared at headquarters for questioning on January 11, 2004. Clayton's statement to police on that date left out several key facts, including that he saw defendant or Perry, or that he was present at Westside Court in the early morning of January 10, 2004. A few days after the shooting, defendant's girlfriend, ...