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State v. Wilder

January 31, 2008

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
DAVID L. WILDER, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Supreme Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

LaVECCHIA, J., writing for the Court.

The issues in this appeal are whether the trial court overcharged the jury by including a charge of murder; and whether the Court should reject the State v. Christener standard, which provides a presumption of prejudice if there was a "real possibility" the jury might have acquitted the defendant of a lesser-included offense if not for the overcharge.

The victim, Kevin McGuire, had been a passenger in a car driven by his girlfriend. She lost control of the car and crashed into the storefront of defendant David Wilder's shoe store. Enraged, Wilder ran out of the store cursing, eventually turning his anger on McGuire. Another man, Nasheem Benjamin, chased McGuire down the street and punched him in the face, knocking McGuire down. As McGuire tried to get up, Wilder, who was wearing heavy-duty construction boots, stomped on the temple portion of McGuire's head, slamming McGuire's skull into the pavement. McGuire began bleeding from his mouth, nose, ears and eyes. Benjamin, shocked by Wilder's actions, tried to help McGuire to his feet. Wilder yelled at Benjamin to "leave him there; he's still breathing." Benjamin stayed with McGuire until an ambulance arrived. McGuire died hours later at the hospital. Autopsy evidence revealed that McGuire died from the blow to his temple. The force had caused a four-and-one-half inch fracture to the thickest bone in McGuire's skull, resulting in brain herniation.

At trial, several eyewitnesses testified on behalf of the State. The State's medical expert testified that the cause of death was consistent with a stomp to the head rather than a fall. At the close of the State's case, Wilder moved for judgment of acquittal, alleging only that the State's witnesses lacked credibility. The trial court denied the motion, noting that credibility issues are for the jury to decide. The court concluded that the jury could find Wilder guilty of murder and endangering a helpless victim. The trial continued and Wilder presented evidence to contradict the State's witnesses.

The trial court instructed the jury on murder, including an explanation of serious-bodily-injury murder. The jury acquitted Wilder of murder, but found him guilty of the lesser-included offense of aggravated manslaughter, as well as the helpless-victim charge. The court imposed a prison term of twenty-three years for aggravated manslaughter and a consecutive five-year term for endangering a helpless victim.

In an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division determined that there was insufficient evidence to support the murder charge, and that the trial court committed plain error by including murder among the charges sent to the jury. The panel reversed Wilder's conviction of aggravated manslaughter not because of insufficient evidence to support that verdict, but because it found there was a "real possibility" of prejudice by jury overcharge. The panel concluded that State v. Christener, 71 N.J. 55 (1976), required reversal. The panel did not reach the sentencing issues raised by Wilder.

The Supreme Court granted the State's petition for certification. 189 N.J. 428 (2007).

HELD: Based on the State's evidence and giving the State the benefit of all favorable inferences, a jury reasonably could have convicted defendant of serious-bodily-injury murder; thus, the trial court did not err by sending the murder charge to the jury. The Court rejects continued use of the Christener rule; overcharging errors must be reviewed under the "unjust result" standard established in Rule 2:10-2.

1. In State v. Reyes, 50 N.J. 454 (1967), the Court explained the standard for determining the sufficiency of the evidence against an accused on a motion for acquittal. The Reyes test requires the trial court to determine whether, viewing all of the State's evidence and giving the State the benefit of all favorable inferences that reasonably can be drawn from the evidence, a reasonable jury could find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In jury-overcharge cases, the rule stated in Christener requires a reviewing court to reverse a conviction if the trial court overcharged the jury and the overcharge prejudiced the defendant. In Christener, prejudice was found where "there was a real possibility" the jury could have found the defendant not guilty of the lesser-included offense. (pp. 8-11)

2. Under the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice, criminal homicide constitutes murder when the defendant purposely or knowingly causes death or serious bodily injury resulting in death. A person is guilty of serious-bodily-injury murder (SBI murder) when the person (1) knowingly or purposely inflicted serious bodily injury with actual knowledge that (2) the injury created a substantial risk of death and that (3) it was highly probable that death would result. A person can be found guilty of the lesser charge of aggravated manslaughter if the person recklessly causes death under circumstances manifesting an extreme indifference to human life. (pp. 11-14)

3. The trial court did not overcharge, as a jury reasonably could have convicted Wilder of SBI murder based on the State's proofs and all reasonable inferences that could be drawn from the State's case. Wilder's intentional acts -- raising his heavily-booted foot into the air to generate downward force to smash McGuire's slightly-raised head into the pavement -- could constitute purposeful conduct designed to cause serious bodily injury. A jury reasonably could find purposeful intention from the mental and physical effort Wilder must have exerted to strike that blow. The combined facts could support the conclusions that it was Wilder's conscious objective to cause serious bodily injury, and that a person who inflicted such a blow to a man's head into the pavement would have known that the injury to the head and brain created a substantial risk of death and that it was probable that death would result. At a minimum, a jury reasonably could find that Wilder's acts demonstrated an awareness that it was practically certain that his conduct would cause serious bodily injury, and thus the alternative "knowing" standard of culpability for SBI murder could have been found to exist. Additional evidence supported the SBI murder charge. For example, Wilder's statement to Benjamin to "leave him" because "he's still breathing," could be regarded as evidence that Wilder was conscious that McGuire was significantly injured and that there was a substantial risk that what Wilder had just done could cause McGuire to stop breathing. (pp. 14-18)

4. This appeal highlights the need to address whether the Christener rule for overcharge cases should persist. That rule allows a presumption of actual prejudice by the possibility of a compromise verdict on a lesser-included offense. Since its inception, the Christener rule has been criticized for being inflexible, unreliable, and based on sheer speculation that an unsupported jury instruction on a greater charge would result in a guilty verdict on a lesser-included offense. (pp. 19-22)

5. The Christener rule, which expects an appellate court to reconstruct a jury's thought process without any evidence of jury compromise, is problematic for several reasons. First, juries are relied upon to carefully follow instructions and apply the facts, as they find them, to the law, as the court instructs. The Christener rule undercuts that principle. The Christener rule involves an assumption that jury members ignored the court's instructions and compromised their verdict. Second, it is wasteful of judicial resources to have appellate courts attempt to second-guess jurors' deliberations, and to have trial courts overturn sound verdicts based on speculation of a compromised verdict. The loose standard of "real possibility" of jury compromise discourages review for actual prejudice. Finally, the Christener rule is inconsistent with general appellate review standards, including Rule 2:10-2, which requires a higher "unjust result" standard for reversible error. (pp. 23-26)

6. A majority of jurisdictions do not apply a rule that presumes prejudice by the possibility of a compromise verdict; rather, they hold that jury overcharge amounts to harmless error. (pp. 26-27)

7. Overcharging errors, like other non-constitutional trial court errors, are to be subjected on appeal to the same "unjust result" standard established in Rule 2:10-2. Therefore, the Court rejects continued use of the Christener rule to review claims of jury overcharge. (p. 28)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED andthe cause is REMANDED for reinstatement of defendant's conviction for aggravated manslaughter. In a separate Order, the Court granted defendant's protective cross-petition for certification and remanded the preserved sentencing issues to the Appellate Division for its consideration.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice LaVECCHIA

Argued September 25, 2007

JUSTICE WALLACE has filed a separate CONCURRING opinion, in which JUSTICE HOENS joins, expressing the view that because the Court has determined that the trial court did not err in submitting the murder charge to the jury, there is no need to re-examine the standards of State v. Christener in this case.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LONG, ALBIN, and RIVERA SOTO join in JUSTICE LaVECCHIA's opinion. JUSTICE WALLACE has filed a concurring opinion, in which JUSTICE HOENS joins.

In a senseless act of savagery, defendant David Wilder stomped to death a helpless young man. The Appellate Division determined that the trial court committed plain error in including first-degree murder among the array of charges against defendant that were sent to the jury. Notwithstanding that the jury acquitted defendant of murder, the appellate panel reversed defendant's conviction on the lesser-included offense of aggravated manslaughter. The panel found that there was a "real possibility" that defendant was prejudiced by jury overcharge caused by inclusion of the murder charge. See State v. Christener, 71 N.J. 55, 69-70 (1976).

Now this case is before us on the State's petition for certification. State v. Wilder, 189 N.J. 428 (2007). The State urges this Court to enforce State v. Reyes, 50 N.J. 454, 458-59 (1967), and, in adhering to that standard when reviewing the sufficiency of the State's proofs, to reverse and reinstate defendant's conviction for aggravated manslaughter. The State and the Attorney General, as amicus curiae, further ask that we overrule and eliminate the confounding influence of Christener, supra, with its unique standard for reversible error applicable to jury-overcharge claims. 71 N.J. at 69-70.

We hold that the appellate court misapplied the Reyes standard and, therefore, we reverse and reinstate defendant's conviction for aggravated manslaughter. Furthermore, we find that the Christener standard is inconsistent with Rule 2:10-2 and our harmless error jurisprudence, irreconcilable with the respect that we accord to a jury's verdict that is based on sufficient evidence, and unreliable in application. For all those reasons, we reject further use of Christener in connection with claims of jury overcharge.

I.

The prosecution of defendant arose from an incident in which he used a heavy-duty construction boot to stomp on the head of the prostrated Kevin McGuire, killing him. At trial, the State presented the following facts leading up to McGuire's death.

On March 25, 2002, an unsettled drug transaction prompted an altercation involving Kathleen Lewis, McGuire, and a group of juvenile drug dealers. During that dispute, McGuire was punched in the face. When the juveniles fled, Lewis used her car to chase them. Her boyfriend, McGuire, was in the passenger seat. During the chase Lewis lost control and crashed her vehicle into the storefront of Wilder's shoe store in Paterson. Enraged by the damage, Wilder ...


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