On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Passaic County, Indictment No. 03-12-1124.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted February 25, 2008
Before Judges C.S. Fisher and C.L. Miniman.
On August 27, 2003, Ashley York gave a party in the basement of her Hawthorne home to celebrate the seventeenth birthday of her boyfriend, Richard Vacca. At approximately 11:30 p.m., Vacca had a dispute at the party with someone known as "Chino," which resulted in Chino grabbing Vacca by the throat. Chino and his girlfriend, Tina Morano, left the party soon thereafter.
At 1:00 a.m., when only Vacca, York and Richard Allison were in the basement, Chino and his girlfriend entered with two others, one of whom asked Vacca if he had "disrespected" his cousin. When Vacca denied this, this unidentified man punched Vacca, knocking him to the floor; between five and eight other men then entered the basement and began throwing bottles and stomping on the prone Vacca. Allison was also severely beaten in this melee. York's threat to call the police prompted the assailants to flee. York then took Allison to the hospital because he was drifting in and out of consciousness.
Vacca called his cousin, Darryl Jackson, who arrived to pick up Vacca a short time later. While driving toward an area in Paterson where Chino was known to hang out, Jackson called other friends -- Anthony Gray and Ejustic Watkins -- who followed in a separate car (the Gray vehicle) to River Street in Paterson.
As Jackson and Vacca drove down River Street, they saw a group of approximately fifteen people standing in front of the building in which defendant lived. Jackson and Vacca told the group they were looking for "a short Puerto Rican kid with a mushroom haircut," which was their description for Chino. After a brief conversation, the two vehicles drove further down River Street, made u-turns, and proceeded again past defendant's building. As the Gray vehicle passed by, an individual in a red t-shirt, later identified as defendant, threw a cup at the car. An argument ensued, but a nearby police officer directed the pedestrians to go inside and the vehicles to move along.
Later, the vehicles again drove by defendant's building. This time, as the Gray vehicle drove past, defendant stepped out from behind a parked car, raised a rifle to his shoulder, looked through the rifle's infrared scope, and fired two shots through the rear windshield of Gray's car. One shot struck Ejustic Watkins in the head; he later died.
Based on Jackson's identification, defendant was arrested and transported to police headquarters, where he was advised of, and waived, his Miranda*fn1 rights. Defendant at first denied involvement, but then acknowledged he had been with Chino when he returned to the party in Hawthorne. He also denied being involved in the fight in the basement, but ultimately conceded he fired a weapon at the Gray vehicle, stating:
Then I went home and the other guys told me that some guys were looking for me. I went upstairs and got the gun. Then I went back downstairs and as soon as I walked out I saw the car coming around. I went behind the car and shot at it two times.
After that, I went upstairs and I lay in bed and I put the gun under some clothes. After that I was watching T.V. for about 20 minutes that is when the cops arrived at my house.
The police also asked defendant about the weapon he had fired at Gray's car. He described it as a black rifle with an infrared scope that he bought from "a white guy" for a "hundred bucks." In fact, the weapon had been stolen from its owner's home in August 2003.
Defendant was indicted and charged with: first-degree murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1) and (2); second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4; third-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(c); and ...