On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County, Indictment No. 00-05-00556.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted February 11, 2009
Before Judges Axelrad and Parrillo.
Defendant Joseph Anthony Baker appeals from the denial of his motion for post-conviction relief (PCR). We affirm.
Defendant was tried before a jury and convicted of aggravated manslaughter, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4(a); first-degree robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1; second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(a); felony murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(3); and third-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b). This was defendant's second trial. The jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict on the first trial.
The trial court merged the manslaughter, robbery and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose convictions with the felony murder conviction and sentenced defendant to a life term with thirty years of parole ineligibility. The court also imposed a consecutive term of five years with two-and-one-half years of parole ineligibility on the unlawful possession of a weapon conviction. The mandatory fines and penalties were also imposed.
The matter arose out of the shooting death of one drug dealer -- the victim -- by another confessed drug dealer -- the defendant. We recite the facts as stated in our previous decision on direct appeal:
On the evening of September 23, 1999, at approximately 9:30 p.m., William Michael Baker (Baker or Baker senior) [defendant's father], walked with Carol Ann Lamanno and David Estrada toward the Sycamore Towers apartment building in Elizabeth with the express purpose of purchasing and thereafter using illicit drugs. The trio came across defendant and a stocky man with short hair and brown eyes at the intersection of Cherry and Orchard Streets. The latter two were on bicycles.
Following a brief, but "friendly conversation," defendant remarked, "[h]ere comes my man now," and bicycled across the street toward a laundromat with his companion. Defendant testified that he was selling drugs at the time, and had over one thousand dollars in cash on his person. According to Lamanno, a "Spanish man" on a bicycle, later identified as Nelson Rodriguez, approached defendant and the other man. The group engaged in a brief conversation, then proceeded to the alleyway near the laundromat.
After a few minutes, Baker and Lamanno heard "popping sounds" coming from the alleyway. Baker described the noise as a "loud . . . bang." Lamanno and Baker observed defendant and his first companion run from the alley, jump onto their bicycles and ride away. Defendant contended that he left the area shortly after the initial encounter with the victim and was therefore not involved in the shooting.
After seeing defendant leave the scene, Lamanno and Baker senior walked toward the alley. They found a person subsequently identified as Nelson Rodriguez dead. Baker recognized Rodriguez from unrelated drug purchases. Neither Lamanno nor Baker summoned emergency personnel to the scene. Police responded to the area after receiving reports of a gunshot. Rodriguez had sustained a fatal close-range bullet wound to the left side of his head, and gun powder residue lingered on his fingers. Police canvassed the area for witnesses and shell casings to no avail.
The next day, Baker spoke to Detectives Rudy Vines, Robert Hack, Ismael Olivero and Kevin O'Leary, and advised them of the events of the prior evening because he felt "disrespected" that his son might have committed a crime in his presence. Baker also told police that defendant "was out there to rob someone." Defendant made several requests asking his father to recant his statement. Although defendant asserted that Baker senior actually recanted his statements to the police, Baker senior disclaimed issuing a recantation.
The State also alleged that defendant told Cheronda Ingram, with whom he had a romantic relationship, that he "got into trouble" and that he "shot somebody . . . because he wouldn't act right." According to Ingram, she gave this information to police when threatened with arrest. Defendant disputed making these statements to Ingram.
On September 25, 1999, Detectives O'Leary and Olivero, along with several other detectives, located defendant in a public housing complex and transported him to police headquarters for questioning. Despite his refusal to sign a Miranda[ ] card, defendant agreed to answer the police questions about the Rodriguez shooting. He admitted that he was present at the corner of Cherry and Orchard Streets the day the victim was killed, but claimed to have been alone.
During this interview, defendant mentioned that his father, "'works for the cops, and . . . probably . . . [was] the one who said I was there.'" He then became visibly angry and stated: "'I can't believe my father put me in this position.'" Baker senior had in fact worked as a confidential informant for several members of the Elizabeth Police Department and had an extensive criminal history. In fact, on November 6, 2000, Baker senior pled guilty to the second-degree offense of a certain person not to have ...