On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Indictment No. 04-05-0843.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 22, 2007
Before Judges Lintner, Graves and Sabatino.
Found guilty by a jury of conspiracy to commit murder, defendant Ricardo Ozorio appeals his conviction and his resulting twenty-year prison sentence. We affirm.
The multi-party, fifteen-count indictment that led to defendant's conviction arose out of a violent and fatal encounter on a summer night in August 2003. The encounter pitted two rival groups of young men on the streets of West New York, near a gas station. During the course of that encounter, a member of one of the sparring factions, Garmair Brown, was stabbed to death. Two of Brown's companions, Christopher Navarro and Brian Powell, also were physically attacked, but survived.
As the State contended at trial, Brown's killing and the simultaneous attack on his companions were committed in apparent retaliation for the stabbing of Luis Carlos Arias, an associate of defendant, four months earlier. On the day of the present offenses, Arias, who had recovered from his stab wounds, was at a cultural parade in West New York with several colleagues when a group of men began giving him menacing "looks." The men who were staring "hard" at Arias were recognized to be part of the group that had been involved in his prior stabbing. The staring incident provoked the violent clash of the two rival factions, later that evening outside the gas station.
Defendant and seven others were charged with numerous crimes for their participation in the bloody street altercation.
In particular, the indictment charged defendant, also known as "Puchichi," with conspiracy to commit murder, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2 and N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a (count one); conspiracy to possess a weapon for an unlawful purpose, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2 and N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4d (count two); conspiracy to possess a weapon without a permit, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2 and N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5d (count three); purposeful and knowing murder of Brown (a/k/a "Bow Wow"), contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a (count four); aggravated assault against Navarro, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b (counts five, six, and seven); aggravated assault against Powell, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b (counts eight and nine); unlawful possession of a weapon, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5d (counts ten (a screwdriver), twelve (a knife), and fourteen (a stick)); and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4d (counts eleven (a screwdriver), thirteen (a knife), and fifteen (a stick)). Also charged in the indictment were Pedro Quezada (a/k/a "Doggy"), Pablo Molina (a/k/a "Tito"), Alexander Cruz Colon, Edwin Guillen, Juan Sanchez Ricardo (a/k/a "Jose"), Moises Rodriguez Castillo and Ramon Almonte (a/k/a "Doyi").
Following his arrest, defendant admitted to the police that he had been present at the parade. At trial, however, he contested the State's proofs placing him at the scene of the stabbing.
Upon the State's motion, defendant's trial was severed from that of his co-defendants. The trial took place over the span of eleven intermittent days in January 2006.
Defendant did not testify, and he did not call any witnesses. The State's evidence at trial, meanwhile, adduced the following facts, which underlie our consideration of the issues raised on appeal.
On August 24, 2003, defendant attended the Dominican Day parade in Hudson County. The parade started on 60th Street and Bergenline Avenue in West New York and continued to 30th Street. Arias, accompanied by Alexander Mendoza and Javier Dujarric, also attended the parade.
At some point Mendoza noticed that a group of men were looking "hard" at Arias.*fn1 Mendoza recognized the staring men as individuals who were often in the area of 60th Street and Bergenline Avenue. Mendoza recalled that the men had been involved in the previous altercation with Arias, during which Arias had been stabbed.
As further background about the Arias stabbing, the State presented testimony of his assailant, Christopher Dopico. Dopico confirmed that a few months earlier, on April 16, 2003, he and several friends had a "confrontation" with a "group of kids." During that confrontation, Dopico stabbed Arias four times with a knife.
According to Mendoza, on the afternoon of the parade the men simply exchanged "looks," without any immediate physical or verbal confrontation. Shortly thereafter, Mendoza left to march in the parade. Mendoza stated that at that point Arias was standing with several men, including defendant, whom Mendoza identified at trial and whose photo Mendoza picked out of an array. Mendoza then saw defendant, Arias, and Dujarric walk around a Foot Locker store on Bergenline Avenue.
After the parade, Mendoza met several men on 5th Street, including Arias and Eric Acevedo. Acevedo's sister owned a white Honda Civic with a Michigan license plate, which several of the co-defendants would use later that night. Acevedo told Mendoza that he had lent his sister's car to a friend named "Jose" earlier that day.*fn2
Sometime that same afternoon, Navarro and eight other unnamed "friends," who often were in the vicinity of 60th Street, were walking back from the parade on 34th Street and Bergenline Avenue to West New York, when they were surrounded by a group of about ten men. According to Navarro, the men said they were looking for someone. One of the men told Navarro and his companions to "come to 60th [Street] at the Exxon [gas station]" later that evening.
Consequently, Navarro, Brown, and three unnamed women went that night to the Exxon station on 60th Street. At approximately 9:00 p.m. a "burgundy" vehicle, later identified as a red Infiniti with Rhode Island license plates, and the white Honda Civic circled the block. The red Infiniti stopped in front of the station, and Navarro saw its three passengers get out. This was corroborated by Anthony Rodriguez, a friend of Brown's who happened to be walking toward the station at that time. Rodriguez likewise saw several people exit the Infiniti.
Navarro recognized the Infiniti passengers as the same three men who had surrounded him earlier at the parade. According to Navarro, the men told Brown they were looking for someone named "Mungi." Brown responded that "if you need to look for [Mungi] you have to see me first."*fn3 At that point a fourth man walked to the Exxon station from around the block where the white Honda had stopped. The man gave Brown an "ugly look," and started stabbing Brown. One of the three men who had gotten out of the red Infiniti, who also was not identified at trial, then began hitting Navarro with a stick. Then the fourth man, who had just stabbed Brown, turned and stabbed Navarro. Meanwhile, another unnamed man, who had stepped out of the Infiniti holding what appeared to be a knife with a sock wrapped around the handle, chased Rodriguez.
While this all was occurring, Powell, who described himself in his testimony as one of Brown's "associates," was positioned across the street from the Exxon station. Powell was standing there, along with three unnamed individuals, when the street fight erupted. Powell recounted that he saw a group of men getting out of a white car. He then saw approximately eight men wearing baseball hats and carrying weapons, such as knives and screwdrivers, approach the area where Brown was standing. As Powell crossed the street to intercede, he observed punches being thrown. He saw Brown, who appeared to be in pain, sitting on a ledge by a dumpster. In response, Powell attempted "to get [Brown] out of there," explaining to the jury that "that's what associates [in their group] do."
When Powell attempted to pull Brown away from the fracas, another individual, who Powell later identified as defendant, came toward them and appeared to "punch" Brown, and then tried to stab Powell with a "sharp instrument." Powell testified that defendant had made a "jab[bing]" motion toward him, which was "just like a punch being thrown." Powell deflected the blow with a radio. He then threw the radio at defendant, who ran from the scene. Powell eventually pulled Brown to the ground and applied pressure to Brown's stab wounds.
Powell later told police detectives that he could identify the man who tried to stab him, and he selected defendant's photo from an array. However, at trial Powell claimed he had been pressured into identifying defendant, stating that he told the detectives that he was "pretty sure" but not positive that defendant was the man who tried to stab him.
After Brown was stabbed, Navarro went to get help. As he approached the street, another of the unnamed men who had exited the red Infiniti tried to stab Navarro with an ice pick. Navarro managed to elude his attacker. He approached a vehicle driven by Frank Silverio, an employee of emergency management in North Hudson. Albert Lombardo, an emergency medical technician, was a passenger in Silverio's vehicle.
Silverio confirmed that, at approximately 9:30 p.m., Navarro stopped their vehicle and told them that he and Brown had been stabbed, and that the perpetrators were escaping in a red Infiniti. Lombardo got out of his truck to assist Navarro. Meanwhile, Silverio pursued and pulled over the red Infiniti. The Infiniti driver and its two passengers voluntarily got out of the car. Although Silverio thought that defendant "look[ed] like" one of the men in the car, he was apparently mistaken ...