On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Burlington County, Indictment No. 00-01-0048.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Stern and C.S. Fisher.
Defendant and his brother were charged with first-degree attempted murder, and other offenses, in connection with the shooting of Joseph Singleton in Mount Holly on April 16, 1999. At the conclusion of a trial, defendant was found guilty of first-degree attempted murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-1; N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1); second-degree aggravated assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(b)(1); second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(a); and third-degree possession of a firearm without a permit, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b).*fn1 Defendant was sentenced to a fifteen-year prison term, with an 85% period of parole ineligibility, pursuant to the No Early Release Act (NERA), N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2, on the attempted murder conviction. He was also sentenced to a seven-year term, subject to a NERA parole disqualifier, on the aggravated assault conviction; a seven-year term, with a three-year period of parole ineligibility, on the possession for an unlawful purpose conviction; and a four-year term, with a three-year period of parole ineligibility, on the unlawful possession of a weapon conviction. These terms were ordered to run concurrently with the term imposed on the attempted murder conviction.
Defendant appealed and argued, among other things, that the trial judge erred in excluding a statement given to police by Michael Kelly, an alleged eyewitness to the shooting, which apparently indicated that defendant was not the person who shot Singleton.*fn2 At trial, defendant had asserted that the statement constituted an excited utterance and was, therefore, admissible pursuant to N.J.R.E. 803(c)(2). In rejecting this argument, we indicated that the record revealed that Kelly "responded to questions rather than giving information spontaneously," and that he "was cooperative, lucid, not in shock, and able to give a flowing statement without hesitation" to the police. State v. Garcia, No. A-4053-01T4 (App. Div. June 3, 2003) (slip opinion at 3). In light of these circumstances, we concluded that the trial judge's "refusal to deem Kelly's statement an excited utterance . . . was a discretionary determination appropriately within the trial judge's purview." Id. at 4.
Other than remanding for the correction of the judgment on a merger issue, we affirmed. The Supreme Court denied defendant's petition for certification on October 2, 2003. 178 N.J. 29.
Defendant filed a petition for post-conviction relief (PCR) on February 2, 2006, contending that he was deprived of the effective assistance of counsel because his trial attorney failed: (1) to properly advise him regarding a plea offer and his exposure if he went to trial; (2) to make various objections to questions posed during trial; and (3) to take all reasonable and appropriate steps to secure Kelly's appearance at trial. The trial judge refused defendant's request for an evidentiary hearing and denied the PCR petition.
Defendant has appealed, raising the following arguments for our consideration:
I. THE DEFENDANT RECEIVED AN ILLEGAL SENTENCE BY IMPOSITION OF THE NO EARLY RELEASE ACT. (NOT RAISED BELOW.)
II. THE PCR COURT SHOULD HAVE GRANTED AN EVIDENTIARY HEARING.
We find insufficient merit in Point I to warrant discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(2). However, we agree that the trial judge should have conducted an evidentiary hearing regarding counsel's failure to produce Kelly as a witness at trial.
"Post-conviction relief is a defendant's last opportunity to raise a constitutional challenge to the fairness and reliability of a criminal verdict in our state system." State v. Feaster, 184 N.J. 235, 249 (2005) (citing State v. Rue, 175 N.J. 1, 18 (2002)). Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 683, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 2062, 80 L.Ed. 2d 674, 690 (1984), which has been followed in our courts, State v. Fritz, 105 N.J. 42, 51 (1987), described the test to be applied in examining claims of actual ineffectiveness in the following way:
First, the defendant must show that counsel's performance was deficient. This requires showing that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the "counsel" guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment. Second, the defendant must show that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense. This requires showing that counsel's errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable. Unless a defendant makes both showings, it cannot be said that the conviction . . . ...