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State v. Stone

February 29, 2008

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
LUCERITA STONE, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Criminal Part, Hudson County, Indictment No. 98-06-0962.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted: February 4, 2008

Before Judges A.A. Rodríguez and C.L. Miniman.

Defendant Lucerita Stone appeals from the March 30, 2006, denial of her timely application for post-conviction relief (PCR) from a judgment of conviction entered on January 13, 2000. We affirm.

Following a jury trial defendant was found guilty of three counts of second-degree reckless manslaughter, three counts of first-degree felony murder and one count of arson and was acquitted on a charge of aggravated arson. The sentencing judge merged the reckless-manslaughter and arson convictions into the felony-murder convictions. After finding aggravating factors one and nine and mitigating factor seven, the judge sentenced defendant to three consecutive life terms in prison with a ninety-year period of parole ineligibility.

The convictions grew out of a fire that occurred in the early morning hours of May 30, 1997, at a multi-family dwelling. Defendant, whose relationship with the resident landlord was contentious, lived in an illegal basement apartment. Three children who lived in the building died in the fire. A full recitation of the facts may be found in our opinions on the interlocutory and direct appeals. State v. Lucerita Stone, No. A-016-99T2 (App. Div. Nov. 8, 1999) (Stone I); State v. Lucerita Stone, No. A-3307-99T4 (App. Div. Aug. 4, 2003) (Stone II). We affirmed the convictions and modified the sentence to three concurrent terms of life imprisonment with a thirty-year parole disqualifier. Defendant's petition for certification of the direct appeal was denied. State v. Stone, 178 N.J. 36 (2003).

In her PCR application defendant raised fourteen issues that she contended mandated a new trial. The application was argued on March 30, 2006, and decided without an evidentiary hearing before Judge Peter J. Vazquez. Judge Vazquez placed a short decision on the record and the same day issued a lengthy and comprehensive written decision. The judge explained on the record that defendant was not entitled to an evidentiary hearing because defendant had not presented a prima facie case of ineffective assistance of counsel. This determination was based on the fact that she had presented nothing more than "bald assertions."

The judge observed that many of the issues raised by defendant either were or could have been raised on direct appeal and were procedurally barred. He also found that even if those issues were to be considered in the context of a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, they did not support such a claim. The judge concluded that defendant had failed to satisfy the two-pronged test of ineffective assistance of counsel set forth in Strickland*fn1 and Fritz.*fn2 Finally, he concluded that defendant had not "demonstrate[d] that the decisions at the trial level were so fundamentally unfair as to survive the procedural hurdles [to a] petition[] for [PCR]." This appeal followed.

Defendant raises fifteen issues for our consideration:

POINT I - THE LOWER COURT ERRED IN DENYING THE PETITION SINCE DEFENDANT RECEIVED INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF TRIAL COUNSEL.

POINT II - THE LOWER COURT ORDER DENYING THE PETITION MUST BE REVERSED SINCE CUMULATIVE ERRORS BY COUNSEL AMOUNTED TO INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL.

POINT III - THE LOWER COURT ORDER MUST BE REVERSED SINCE DEFENDANT WAS DENIED THE EFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF APPELLATE COUNSEL.

POINT IV - THE LOWER COURT ORDER MUST BE REVERSED SINCE THE INDICTMENT SHOULD HAVE BEEN DISMISSED IN ITS ENTIRETY.

POINT V - THE LOWER COURT ORDER MUST BE REVERSED SINCE ALL OF THE STATEMENTS ALLEGEDLY MADE BY DEFENDANT ...


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