On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County, Indictment No. 05-04-0917.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 1, 2007
Before Judges Graves and Sabatino.
After a three-day jury trial in January 2006, defendant Antonio Williams was found guilty of possessing heroin, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10a(1). That trial followed a mistrial of the case in December 2005, which had ended with a hung jury on the second day of deliberations. Defendant was sentenced to a four-year prison term.
Defendant was indicted after police discovered on the ground near him two packages containing heroin. At about 5:30 in the afternoon of January 29, 2005, two Long Branch police officers, patrolling the neighborhood in an unmarked car, initially saw defendant outside of an apartment complex. Defendant was standing on the sidewalk with a group of at least three other people.
The officers testified that when they approached, defendant left the group and walked towards an apartment building. One of the officers testified that he saw defendant drop something while he was near the doorstep of an apartment. Defendant allegedly then started walking back towards the officers. Minutes later, one of the officers found the packages on the ground, with the aid of a flashlight. Laboratory analyses subsequently confirmed that the packages contained heroin.
Defendant presented a competing version of the facts. He testified that he had driven to Long Branch to drop off his sister and daughter so that they could visit friends in the apartment complex. He then got out of his car and began conversing with old friends on the sidewalk, when a police car approached. Defendant contended that the police immediately put everyone up against a gate, that one of the officers seemed to recognize him, and that he was placed under arrest when he failed to produce identification.
According to defendant, at that point one of the officers found something on the ground. They asked him and the others to admit that the items belonged to them, but no one claimed ownership.
In his trial testimony, defendant specifically denied that he ever possessed the heroin packages or that he had thrown anything on the ground. He also denied walking towards the apartment, contrary to the officers' sworn observations.
As corroboration of his account, defendant presented at the second trial*fn1 two witnesses, his sister April Williams and an acquaintance, Darran Jones. Defendant's sister testified that he had driven her to a friend's apartment, and that he had been waiting for her outside and conversing with old friends. She stated that, upon hearing that police had pulled up outside, she went to a screen door of the apartment. There she watched her brother's encounter with the officers. Although she admitted seeing a patrolman pick up something off the ground, she insisted that she did not see her brother or anyone else throw anything down beforehand.
Jones testified that he was present when defendant drove up to the apartment complex. He recalled that a group of about seven people then gathered with defendant and started conversing. Police in an unmarked car soon arrived. At that point, several members of the group wandered off. The police then began to question defendant.
Jones contended that he was standing about three to five feet away when defendant was placed into the squad car. He testified that from his close vantage point he did not see defendant throw anything down. Jones stated that while defendant was in the police car, a patrolman discovered something on the ground. Jones acknowledged that he knew that the packages belonged to "somebody," but he did not attribute their ownership to defendant.
In summations, the prosecutor and defense counsel respectively argued that the case turned on the credibility of the police witnesses, versus that of the defendant and the other defense witnesses, concerning the drugs found on the ground. The defense attorney asserted that there were several inconsistencies in the accounts of the two officers. Defense counsel also argued that it would not make sense for defendant to have walked back in the direction of the police if he had indeed been in possession of illegal drugs. The prosecutor countered ...