On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Gloucester County, 04-10-0740-I.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 22, 2007
Before Judges Stern, A. A. Rodríguez and Collester.
Tried to a jury, defendant was convicted on May 27, 2005, of felony murder in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(3). He was sentenced by Judge John Tomasello on July 15, 2005, to a thirty- year prison term with a fifteen-year parole bar and given credit for 756 days of time served and 4,755 days of gap time credits. Defendant appeals his conviction and sentence.
Eighty-six-year old Rose Twells lived alone in her home on Delaware Street in Woodbury in late 1979. Five days before Christmas, her nephew, Charles Edgekin, came to her house to take Rose out to dinner. He rang the doorbell and knocked at the front door, but there was no answer. Edgekin then returned to his nearby home and got the key to Rose's front door that she had given to him. Opening the door, he saw Rose's body covered in blood and lying at the foot of a staircase with her legs tied to a banister by a lamp cord.
Police responded to Edgekin's call and found clear signs of a burglary at the house with drawers pulled out and items strewn about the floor in several rooms. There was a large pool of blood by Rose's head and around her upper body. There were also items of broken glass and a small iron pot found nearby. A lamp cord was tied to her feet and a banister at the base of the stairs. The house was an old, three-story wooden structure with many rooms filled with different furniture and bags. Detective Watson, the lead investigator, said that looking through the house was "like stepping back in time." Several rooms were closed off, and the temperature was set at a minimum of forty-two degrees, which was consistent with the various layers of clothing worn by the victim. There were several doors in the home with hooks and eyes for locks, including a back door, that was left unlocked. There was no sign of forced entry and efforts to find usable fingerprints were unavailing. The only identifiable print belonged to Rose. Moreover, it was difficult to determine whether money, jewelry or other property was taken. Rose's sister lived in California, and she listed as Rose's property a diamond pendant of approximately two or three quarter carats of the approximate value of $10,000 and a gold ring with a blue stone worth about $150. Neither the pendant nor the gold ring were found by police in the home.
The medical examiner certified Rose's death as a homicide and the cause of death as massive head wounds to the top of her skull. Because the thermostat was turned down to the minimum, the medical examiner was unable to determine a time of death save for an opinion that Rose was killed some time between December 18 and 20, 1979.
While investigators continued to pursue leads, Rose's murder remained unsolved for almost twenty-five years. However, bits of information were received over time which cast a cloud of suspicion on three men: Mark English, Clifford Jeffrey, and defendant. Finally, on June 20, 2003, the past became present, and the three were arrested and charged with Rose's murder.
Defendant was forty years old when he was arrested, but only sixteen at the time of the crime. Accordingly, a juvenile complaint was signed charging him with burglary and murder along with a petition filed by the prosecutor for waiver of his juvenile status so he could be tried as an adult. Following a hearing pursuant to R. 5:22-2, the Family Court judge waived jurisdiction and referred defendant to the criminal court. Shortly thereafter, on October 6, 2004, defendant, English and Jeffrey, were indicated for knowing and/or purposeful murder, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1) and (2) (count one), and felony murder, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(3).
Defendant was tried separately over six days in May 2005. The case against him was based in part on his alleged incriminating admissions. Justine Shenkus, thirteen years old at the time of the crime, testified that defendant was a friend of her brother and stayed at her home in early 1980 after he had been thrown out of his own home by his mother. Shenkus said that defendant told her that he had gone to his "Nana's" house to borrow money, but she refused. He began taking certain items. When she caught him and went to call the police, defendant said he yanked the phone from her hands, pushed her to the floor, tied a cord around her neck and threw it over the banister to strangle her. Shenkus testified that she was afraid of the defendant and did not tell investigators until she was questioned a couple of months after the murder.
Lee Mayhew testified that two or three months after the murder he was smoking pot with defendant in the woods behind Woodbury High School when Rose's murder was discussed, and defendant admitted to murdering her. He bragged he would not be caught because snow covered up his tracks and also because at that time his father was the mayor of Woodbury and would protect him.
Keith Rosenthal testified that he met defendant in 1987. During a conversation in his apartment, defendant asked him, "Did you ever hear about the old lady around the corner that was killed?" When Rosenthal said he had not heard about it, the defendant said, "That was me." Rosenthal said that he went to the police station the following day and reported the defendant's statement to a patrolman.
Testifying that she was defendant's girlfriend from 1979 to 1980 or 1981, Denise Peterson recalled that defendant told her that along with others he had tied up an old woman, strangled her, and robbed her of her jewelry to buy drugs. Investigators had previously interviewed Paterson in late 1980, but she did not tell them about defendant's statements because she was afraid of defendant. She related that it was only when police came back to see her in 2005 that she told them the truth.
Other witnesses testified that defendant, English and Jeffrey committed the crime. Shirley Logan said she dated Jeffrey in high school in 1979 and that she heard Jeffrey discuss with the defendant plans to commit a burglary at Rose Twells' house to steal her expensive jewelry. Logan said she heard defendant say that his father was a friend of Rose and had the key to her home. Logan further testified that she met Jeffrey on the night of the murder and saw that his shirt was bloody. Jeffrey told her that things had "gone bad," and admitted that the victim had been beaten until it was believed she was dead. Logan also said that in a later conversation with defendant, he admitted to killing Rose. She added that the following day she received a phone call from an unidentified person threatening her that she would be killed if she told police what she knew about the murder. When she was first questioned by investigators about the crime some months later, Logan told them that she heard that three black men committed the crime. She gave the names of three men, but the investigators discounted her statement when they discovered that two of the men were white.
Jack Abel told the jury that he was twenty-six-years old in 1979, and was a neighbor of eighteen-year-old Clifford Jeffrey. He said that on the night of the murder Jeffrey called him to pick him up on Delaware Street. When he got there, Abel said that Jeffrey and a female got into his car. Abel noticed blood on Jeffrey's shirt, and Jeffrey said he had been in a fight. Abel took Jeffrey to change his shirt, and they left to go to Thorofare or Camden to buy drugs.
Particularly damaging to defendant was the testimony of Luann Vennell-Waller, who claimed to be defendant's girlfriend at the time of the murder. Testifying under a grant of immunity, Vennell-Waller said that one night she was present in the woods opposite Rose Twells' home when defendant and two of his friends talked about burglarizing the home because Rose was rumored to have money and expensive jewelry in the house. Defendant told the others that he had access to a key to the house. Vennell-Waller agreed to serve as look-out for the burglary, and on the night of the crime, she met defendant and the two others in front of Rose's house and waited outside while defendant and the others entered the house. When one of the others came running out of the house looking scared, Vennell-Waller ran away from the scene. She said that later that night defendant called her and told her that Rose recognized him, and they argued over money. He said he grabbed her, and she fell down the stairs. He admitted to hitting her on the head after she was tied to the banister. Vennell-Waller recalled meeting defendant later that night, and he showed her some jewelry that he had taken from the house. He threatened her that if she mentioned anything about the crime or what she had seen, he would kill her parents. She said she made an anonymous call to the police about a week later to tell them that it was defendant who killed the old woman in her home. Years later in 1992 or 1993, Vennell-Waller was questioned by investigators. After telling them what she saw and heard, she obtained a lawyer who arranged for her immunity from prosecution for her participation in the crime in exchange for her trial testimony.
Steve Forbes said he was thirty-two years old at the time of the crime. He recalled receiving a phone call from English on the night of the murder and agreed to pick him up along with the defendant on Delaware Street near the victim's home. When he arrived, he saw blood on their clothes. He said defendant told him that things had gotten "out of hand," and "the old lady had to get hit" when she moved toward the phone to call police. Forbes said that defendant and English threw their clothes in a nearby dumpster after he had given them other clothes to wear. He added that the following day he went with defendant and English to Philadelphia to pawn the stolen jewelry and buy cocaine and heroin from the cash stolen from Rose's house. Forbes further testified that in 1992, he told police about the involvement of English and Jeffrey in the crime because he had been arrested for burglaries and arson and wanted to "work out a deal." He did not mention defendant at that time, explaining that he was afraid of him.
Testifying on his own behalf, defendant denied any involvement with the burglary and the murder. He denied ever knowing Rose Twells and said her name was never mentioned at his house. He said he did not know if his father had a key to the residence, but he denied ever taking a key. He also denied knowing English, Jeffrey, Logan, Abel or Forbes. He admitted he was dating Paterson in 1979, but he denied ever telling her that he murdered the victim. He also denied confessing to Mayhew or making any admission to Rosenthal. He said he did not meet Vennell-Waller until three years after the crime. He denied she was his girlfriend and said their relationship was only sexual. He denied ever telling her he committed the murder.
Defendant's mother also testified on his behalf. She said she never knew Rose Twells but that Rose was a good friend of her late husband's mother. While she believed that her husband kept in contact with Rose over the years, she was sure he did not have a key to her house. She admitted that she told defendant to leave her home when he was sixteen or seventeen after she discovered one Easter Sunday that he had stolen some of the family silverware. A week later she let him return when he claimed that he was a born-again Christian. Ms. Bayer also said that defendant had taken other items from her home and that she once found ...