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NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION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 February 25, 2008
Before Judges Graves, Sabatino and Alvarez.
In this direct criminal appeal, defendant Ramon Almonte alleges several errors in the 2006 trial that resulted in his conviction of conspiracy to commit murder and of two related weapons offenses. Defendant also appeals his sentence. We affirm defendant's convictions but remand for resentencing, in light of the State's concession that the weapons offenses should have merged for sentencing purposes.
This matter arises out of a fatal confrontation between two rival factions of young men on the evening of August 24, 2003 in West New York. According to the State's proofs, defendant, along with seven other members of a street gang known as "Los Trinitarios," participated that night in an attack upon members of another contingent known as the "60th Street" gang. The State contended that the attack of August 24, 2003 was conducted in retaliation for the stabbing of Luis Carlos Arias, a member of Los Trinitarios, four months earlier on April 16, 2003, by members of the 60th Street faction. The August 2003 altercation occurred hours after the Dominican Day parade in West New York. The aggressors in the attack wielded knives and screwdrivers. During the course of the attack, one of the 60th Street gang members, Garmair Brown, was stabbed to death, and two of Brown's colleagues, Christopher Navarro and Brian Powell, were stabbed and injured.
Defendant's alleged role in the August 24 altercation began earlier that day when he was present with members of Los Trinitarios while the evening attack was planned. Consistent with that plan, defendant that evening got into a white 1993 Honda Civic with a leader of Los Trinitarios from Brooklyn, Pedro Quezada. Quezada brought with him a long screwdriver. Defendant, meanwhile, got into the Honda with a large piece of plywood. Two other gang members also got into the car.
The white Honda and a red Infiniti, each carrying four occupants, converged at an Exxon gas station at 60th Street around 9:00 p.m. When the eight men arrived, they encountered about fifteen people, including Brown, Navarro and Powell. Two or three of the arrivals got out of the Honda and approached Brown. According to an eyewitness, Jessica Pardo, one of them "pushed" Brown, and, using what appeared to be a knife, stabbed him repeatedly in his lower body. After hearing Brown scream, Powell came to his aid. While he was rendering assistance, Powell was assaulted by another person with a knife, but he was able to deflect the attack. In the course of the ensuing melee, Navarro also was stabbed in the arm.
As police responded to the scene, the participants scattered. An EMS crew attended to Brown, who died of five stab wounds later that evening. Police officers located the red Infiniti, and apprehended three occupants who had been involved in the attack. They recovered from that vehicle a screwdriver wrapped in cloth, as well as finding another screwdriver in a nearby dumpster. Several broken pieces of wood were also found on the south side of 60th Street. Police also subsequently located the white Honda, and found a knife in the trunk.
Defendant was not immediately apprehended. A few months after the attack, in January 2004, police interviewed a witness, Alex Mendoza. Mendoza told the police that defendant had been with the group at the parade on August 24, 2003. Defendant was subsequently arrested. After being given Miranda*fn1 warnings, he admitted that he had been at the parade, and that he had thereafter gone to the gas station in the Honda with the others because they were looking for the men who had previously stabbed Arias. Defendant further admitted that he formerly had been a member of Los Trinitarios. He identified Quezada as the "head" of the Brooklyn members of the group, and that Quezada had given an "order" for the men to go to the 60th Street location. Defendant contended that he went along with the group because he was drunk at the time, and was afraid of Quezada.
Defendant denied to the police that he had attacked anyone himself, although he admitted that he had gotten into the car with a plywood board or "stick" that could be used as a weapon. He maintained that when he arrived at the fight scene, he was so intoxicated that he fell down, and someone took the board away from him. Defendant also acknowledged that his cohorts stabbed Brown and attacked others at the scene. Following his interview, defendant showed the police the place where Quezada discarded a large screwdriver that he had used in the attack. The next day the police recovered that weapon, which had a blade approximately ten inches long.
Defendant and the seven others*fn2 involved in the August 24, 2003 attack were subsequently indicted in Hudson County and charged with numerous crimes, the most serious of which was conspiracy to commit Brown's murder. Defendant's trial was severed from that of the co-defendants.
At trial, the State presented testimony from several participants or eyewitnesses, including Arias, Powell, Pardo, and an associate of theirs named Anthony Rodriguez. The State also presented testimony from Frank Silverio, an EMS worker who had assisted Navarro after he had been stabbed, and Police Detective Edward Rivera. Rivera, who was the first officer to arrive at the scene of the altercation, was initially approached by Navarro. He thereafter discovered Brown on the ground with stab wounds. The jury also was provided with defendant's taped post-Miranda statement and various physical and documentary exhibits. Additionally, the State presented testimony from several other officers who had been involved in the investigation, a forensic pathologist who had performed Brown's autopsy, and numerous other lay witnesses.
Over defendant's objection, the State also provided expert testimony concerning Latino gang organizations, including Los Trinitarios, from Police Detective David Valdivia. Among other things, Detective Valdivia explained to the jury the structure of the Los Trinitarios organization, its rules and practices, and its relationship to other gangs. He also explained the gang context of the stabbing of Arias in April 2003 and the retaliation by the rival gang that occurred on August 24 following the parade.
Defendant did not put on any trial witnesses, and elected not to testify in his own defense. Several of the counts against him were dismissed by the court before the jury was charged, ...