On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Indictment No. 04-09-2973.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Fuentes and Waugh.
Defendant, Angel Medina, appeals from a judgment of conviction for the purposeful murder of Mutah Coleman, along with two related weapons possession charges, arising out of a shooting in the early morning hours of January 1, 2004 in Newark. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison, with a 35-year parole ineligibility period. On this direct appeal, defendant raises three issues: (1) The trial judge's charge improperly instructed the jury to deliberate on the passion/provocation element of manslaughter only after finding defendant not guilty of murder, which he alleges amounted to an "acquit first" charge in violation of State v. Coyle, 119 N.J. 194 (1990); (2) The charge on flight was erroneous because it improperly placed the burden to disprove the reason for flight on defendant; and (3) The trial judge erred by sending the jury for further deliberations, after the jurors said they were deadlocked, without asking whether the jury would benefit from further deliberations. We affirm.
On September 3, 2004, the Essex County Grand Jury returned Indictment Number 2004-09-2973, charging defendant with knowing or purposeful murder, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:3-11a(1) and (2) (Count 1), unlawful possession of a weapon, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b) (Count 2), and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(a) (Count 3).
The jury trial began on September 28, 2005 and continued for five more trial days. Testimony was completed on October 18th.*fn1 The trial judge charged the jury on October 19th. During the next three days, the jury deliberated and requested read-backs of both testimony and portions of the charge.
The jury returned on October 25th and continued its deliberations. At the end of the day, the jury sent the following note to the trial judge: "After four days of deliberations this jury cannot arrive at a unanimous decision, and all 12 jurors believe that further deliberations will not yield a different result". In response to the note, he excused the jurors for that day and directed them to return the next day at 9 a.m.
The following day, the trial judge gave the jury a supplemental charge about continuing their deliberations. After further deliberations and read backs, including the entire charge on the murder and possession for an unlawful purpose counts, the jury returned guilty verdicts on all counts.
The trial judge sentenced defendant to an extended term of 40-years, with a 35-year parole ineligibility period, on the murder charge. He imposed a concurrent 5-year term on the unlawful possession count. The remaining count, possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, was merged with the murder.
The testimony at trial revealed the following facts relevant to the appeal. On December 31, 2003, Makisia Haskins and her boyfriend Yusef Battle went to the Club Elaganza in Newark. They arrived at the Club, which they described as being dark, crowded and with loud music playing, after midnight. After approximately ten minutes in the Club, Haskins saw people fighting and recognized defendant to be one of the people involved. Haskins became separated from Battle because of the fight, but ended up being escorted out of the building by the Club's security personnel, along with defendant and Battle.
Haskins and Battle left the Club in Battle's burgundy Honda Civic and drove to Battle's mother's house. After sitting outside the house for a few minutes talking with Battle, Haskins went into the house and talked to Battle's sister. After Battle called her on the cell phone, she left the house and returned to the car, where she found defendant in the car with Battle.
Haskins described Battle as being a little upset and Defendant as calm. They drove around with little conversation for less than an hour, going nowhere in particular. They eventually ended up at a store called King's Fried Chicken, which is referred to as the "Chicken Shack." Battle parked the car down the street from the store. Defendant got out of the car and went into the store. Haskins saw him talking to people in the store. She could not see clearly into the store because the windows were "foggy". She described the lighting outside of the store as dark, but said that there was light inside the store.
Battle then moved his car to a spot on the street right in front of the Chicken Shack. After a few minutes, Battle got out of the car and went inside to get a soda for Haskins. A few minutes later, six or seven people, including defendant and Battle, came outside. Haskins then saw defendant and two other males arguing in front of the store. One was light-skinned and the other, the victim, was dark-skinned and wearing a "colorful hat." Haskins saw the light-skinned male trying to push defendant away, apparently to prevent a fight. The arguing continued for about five minutes.
According to Haskins, shortly before she heard a shot, defendant was face-to-face with the victim and only a few feet away from him. The other male grabbed defendant, but then let him go. Defendant started to walk closer to the victim. Haskins testified that she did not see the shooting itself.
After she heard the shot, Haskins turned towards defendant and saw the victim fall. Defendant walked back to the car and got in. At almost the same time, Battle got in the driver's seat and they drove away quickly. Haskins testified that they drove away going about 70 mph and that defendant said he wanted to drive on the highway.
According to Haskins, defendant told Battle he wanted to stop at housing projects referred to as "Seth Boyden." Haskins' initial testimony was that she did not see anything in defendant's hands while they were driving around. She was subsequently shown her statement to the police and then testified that she saw a gun fall out of defendant's pocket, which defendant picked up from the floor. After they arrived at the projects, defendant got out, went into a building and came right back out again.
They then drove to the Ritz Hotel on the border of Newark and Elizabeth. When they arrived at the hotel, defendant asked Haskins to go into the office and get a room. After some initial reluctance, the clerk rented her a room. Haskins used a fictitious name. Defendant also asked Haskins to request the clerk to make the check-in time an hour earlier than it really had been, but the clerk refused. Haskins returned to the car and handed the room key to defendant, who left the car. Battle and Haskins then drove to Battle's mother's house.*fn2
Ferming Wilson was a friend of the victim who was present at the Chicken Shack at the time of the shooting. Wilson described the victim as being in a good mood and acting normally. He knew defendant because they had grown up in the same neighborhood. Wilson is a member of a gang known as the "Bloods," but testified that the victim was not a ...