On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 392 N.J. Super. 101 (2007).
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).
The central issue in this appeal is whether a person who has an honest and reasonable belief that the use of deadly force is necessary to repel an assailant from inflicting on him death or serious bodily harm can be criminally liable for the reckless manslaughter of that assailant.
On March 19, 2003, Wilberto Rodriguez was inside the W.L. Mini-Market in Jersey City, attempting to sell car radios to people in the store. Hobbs, who was in the store making a purchase, spoke to Rodriguez about the price of the radios. Hobbs threatened to "kick [Rodriguez's] ass" and take the radios away from him. Hobbs told Rodriguez he would see him outside and left, but Rodriguez remained in the store. Hobbs returned and physically attacked Rodriguez. Rodriguez responded by stabbing Hobbs with a "small" folding knife. Hobbs died shortly thereafter as a result of the stabbing.
Rodriguez was indicted for the purposeful knowing murder of Anthony Hobbs; third-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose; and fourth-degree unlawful possession of a weapon. A jury found Rodriguez not guilty of murder and the lesser-included offenses of first-degree aggravated manslaughter and second-degree provocation manslaughter, but guilty of the lesser-included offense of second-degree reckless manslaughter and the weapons offenses.
The Appellate Division reversed the manslaughter conviction because the trial court did not give a proper jury charge on self-defense. In particular, the trial court did not make clear that if the State failed to disprove that Rodriguez acted in self-defense in using deadly force to ward off Hobbs's alleged attack and attempted robbery, Rodriguez could not be found guilty of reckless manslaughter.
The Supreme Court granted the State's petition for certification to determine whether a valid claim of self-defense -- when not disproved by the State -- exonerates a defendant of reckless manslaughter. The Court also granted Rodriguez's cross-petition to determine whether the Appellate Division properly rejected his contention that, as a matter of law, "he was under no duty to retreat in the face of a threatened robbery."
HELD: Based on the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice, a person who kills in the honest and reasonable belief that the protection of his own life requires the use of deadly force does not kill recklessly. The State's failure to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant did not act in self-defense in repelling his attacker entitles defendant to an exoneration of criminal liability on the murder, aggravated manslaughter, and manslaughter charges.
1. The trial court's jury instructions on self-defense were, at best, confusing. The State had the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Rodriguez did not act in self-defense in repelling Hobbs's attack. Statutory and case law support the Appellate Division's conclusion that the State's failure to meet that burden would entitle Rodriguez to an exoneration of criminal liability on the murder, aggravated manslaughter, and manslaughter charges. (Pp. 5-6)
2. The New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice, N.J.S.A. 2C:1-1 to 2C:104-9, defines the manner and circumstances in which a person may use force to protect himself from harm. Under the Code, exoneration on the basis of self-defense would be clearly inconsistent with a finding of manslaughter -- that a person recklessly killed his aggressor. Based on the Code's own language, a person who kills in the honest and reasonable belief that the protection of his own life requires the use of deadly force does not kill recklessly. However, although a valid self-defense is inconsistent with an act of recklessness toward one's aggressor, it is another question if the use of force to protect one's self recklessly endangers innocent third parties. In that case, a person justified in using deadly force for his own protection is stripped of the legal justification of self-defense. (Pp. 6-9)
3. In considering whether to charge the jury on self-defense, a court should consider the circumstances that might give rise to that defense, including the defendant's and alleged aggressor's conduct, rather than the charges chosen by the prosecutor. The reality of the situation facing the defendant governs whether he had a right to engage in self-defense. As long as a self-defense charge is requested and supported by some evidence in the record, it must be given. In this case, if the State failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant could not have reasonably believed in the need to use deadly force, defendant should have been exonerated from criminal liability and acquitted of murder, aggravated manslaughter, and manslaughter. Conversely, if the State met its burden, then the jury should have considered the substantive charges. Because the erroneous jury instructions here, attributable in part to reliance on dicta in State v. Moore, 158 N.J. 292 (1999), were "clearly capable of producing an unjust result," defendant's conviction for reckless manslaughter cannot stand. R. 2:10-2. Last, the Court agrees with the Appellate Division's conclusion that defendant had a duty to retreat were he able to do so safely. The Court will not assume that in all robberies a victim will reasonably believe he is likely to suffer death or serious bodily injury and cannot safely retreat. The Court will not sanction the gratuitous use of deadly force in violation of the express terms of the Code. (Pp. 9-13)
The judgment of the Appellate Division, which remanded the matter for a new trial on the reckless manslaughter and weapons charges, is AFFIRMED.
CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, WALLACE, RIVERA-SOTO, and HOENS join in JUSTICE ALBIN's opinion. JUSTICE LONG did not participate.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: ...