On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Indictment No. 03-06-2275.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted February 11, 2009
Before Judges Waugh and Newman.
Defendant Sherman Artwell appeals from a seven-count conviction stemming from the murder of his girlfriend's paramour and the resulting sentence of life imprisonment, subject to the No Early Release Act (NERA), N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2, and a consecutive five-year term for hindering apprehension, subject to two-and-one-half years of parole ineligibility. We affirm.
Artwell and co-defendant Zoranda Paulson had one son together and had been romantically involved for more than ten years. Paulson was also romantically involved with the victim, Ronald Jackson. Jackson supported Paulson and her three children, paying for her home and other expenses.
Paulson's cousin, co-defendant Jonathan Martin, testified at Artwell's trial that approximately three weeks before Jackson's murder, the three co-defendants met at Paulson's house. Paulson told the two men that Jackson had raped and beaten her. According to Martin, it was decided that Jackson would be "choked out." Martin testified that Artwell and Paulson wanted him to help them by setting the body on fire. Martin did not initially agree, but later acquiesced because Paulson promised him a place to live if he went along with the plan. Martin testified that he then moved in with Paulson.
According to Martin, on August 11, 2002, he walked down to the first floor of Paulson's house and saw Jackson sitting at the dining room table and Paulson cooking. He asked Paulson if Artwell was in the house and she told him that he was upstairs. Martin then left the house at around noon.
Artwell, who did not testify at trial, told police that he had been on the second floor of Paulson's house when Jackson arrived on August 11, 2002. Also upstairs were two of Paulson's children and a friend of her daughter. Artwell went downstairs and an altercation ensued between himself and Jackson. Paulson testified at trial that after Artwell and Jackson started fighting, she went upstairs.
In Artwell's second statement to the police, he said that he and Jackson were arguing about Paulson and that Jackson was upset that Artwell was at Paulson's house. Artwell stated that as he went to walk past Jackson, Jackson jumped at him from behind and that he swung at Artwell, but Artwell ducked, avoiding the blow. Artwell also stated that Jackson had a pen in his hand and he was not "sure whether he was going to stab [him] with it, but . . . his hands came up and  he was trying to stab [him]." Both of Artwell's taped statements were played for the jury at the trial.
Paulson testified at trial that when she came back downstairs, Artwell had Jackson in a "chokehold." Artwell told police that he held Jackson in the chokehold until he was not moving anymore. According to Artwell, at this point Jackson was "knocked out" and "snoring."
Once Jackson was unconscious, Artwell and Paulson duct taped Jackson's hands behind his back and duct taped his ankles together. They also put duct tape over his mouth and nose. Paulson then got rubbing alcohol. She and Artwell cleaned underneath Jackson's nails because he had scratched Artwell during their altercation and they wanted to remove any evidence linking them to Jackson.
Artwell and Paulson then moved Jackson to the basement of Paulson's house. Paulson testified that it was her intention to keep him in the basement until the next day. She also testified that she knew Jackson was still breathing when they put him in the basement. Similarly, Artwell told the police that Jackson was still breathing after he and Paulson had moved him to the basement.
Paulson drove Artwell home in Jackson's car at approximately six p.m. When Paulson returned home, she brought the three children down from the second floor and ate dinner with them. John Moore, a cousin of Jackson, arrived at Paulson's house and asked if she knew where Jackson was. She told him she did not. She let Moore into the house to page Jackson and he ate dinner with her and the children.
After Moore left and the children had gone to bed, Paulson went to the basement to check on Jackson. She noted that he was still breathing so she retrieved more duct tape and "taped  from his nose to his eyebrows." Paulson testified that she did this because she wanted Jackson dead, but denied that she had planned in advance with Artwell or Martin to kill Jackson.
In his statement to the police, Artwell said that he called Paulson several times on the evening of August 11, 2002. In the first phone call, Paulson told Artwell that Jackson was still breathing. After about a half an hour, Artwell called Paulson again and she checked on Jackson. At this time, Paulson told Artwell that Jackson was not breathing, and Artwell told her she needed to get rid of the body because it was so hot that the body would start to smell. He told her she needed to "burn him." In his statements, Artwell also related that he told Paulson to "put him in the car and burn him."
According to Paulson's testimony at trial, however, she did not speak with Artwell after dropping him off at his house. Rather, Martin called her and asked if he could spend the night at her house. She told him yes, but that he would first need to do her a favor and help her get rid of Jackson's body. Martin, in contrast, testified that Paulson called him and told him that everything was done and he should come back to the house and help her destroy the body.
Martin went to Paulson's house and entered the basement. He observed Jackson "propped up against the wall" with his hands duct taped behind his back, his ankles taped together, and duct tape on his face "from his nose to his chin." Martin believed Jackson to be dead because "[h]e wasn't moving." Paulson testified that at this point she also believed Jackson to be dead. Both Paulson and Martin went upstairs, put on dark clothes, and then returned to the basement.
Paulson and Martin wrapped Jackson in a sheet and carried him upstairs. Paulson then returned downstairs to retrieve a gas can. She realized that there was not enough gas in the can, so she and Martin left Jackson by the front door and used Jackson's car to drive to a convenience store. Martin purchased lighter fluid and they returned to Paulson's house.
Paulson and Martin carried Jackson's body out to the car. They wanted to put him in the trunk of his car, but he did not fit so they put him in the backseat. The two then drove the car to an abandoned lot, where Paulson parked it between two abandoned cars. They poured the lighter fluid on the car and set it on fire.
Paulson and Martin then ran several blocks, disposing of some of their clothes on the way. They hailed a cab and returned to Paulson's house.
An autopsy revealed that Jackson was alive when the fire was set. He died from smoke inhalation and thermal burns. Jackson also had a fractured skull from unknown causes.
Artwell, Paulson, and Martin were indicted on June 18, 2003. Artwell was indicted on the following charges: first-degree murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1),(2) (count one); first-degree felony murder (based on aggravated arson), N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(3) (count two); second-degree aggravated arson, N.J.S.A. 2C:17-1(a) (count three); first-degree conspiracy to commit murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2 (count four); second-degree conspiracy to commit aggravated arson, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2 (count five); two counts of third-degree hindering apprehension, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3(b)(1) (counts six and eight); and third-degree conspiracy to commit hindering apprehension, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2 (count seven).
Co-defendants Paulson and Martin were charged in the first seven counts listed above and an additional six counts including hindering apprehension, felony murder (based on carjacking), carjacking, theft of an automobile, and conspiracy. Martin pled guilty to second-degree reckless manslaughter and third-degree hindering apprehension or prosecution. He was sentenced to an aggregate seven-year term subject to NERA. Paulson pled guilty to aggravated manslaughter prior to the start of Artwell's trial.
On September 1, 2004, a Miranda*fn1 hearing was held before Judge Samuel D. Natal. Judge Natal ruled that any statements made by Artwell to the police would be admissible because he had been fully advised of his Miranda rights prior to questioning and had voluntarily and intelligently waived those rights.
The trial began on May 31, 2006, and continued over five days. The jury returned a verdict on June 8, 2006, after twoand-one-half hours of deliberation. The jury found Artwell not guilty of count two, conspiracy to commit murder. Artwell was also acquitted of first-degree murder (count one), but found guilty of the lesser included offense of aggravated manslaughter. N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4(a)(1). He was convicted on all remaining charges.
Artwell was sentenced on August 4, 2006. Judge Natal merged the conspiracy counts into the related substantive counts. He then merged counts three (aggravated arson), six (hindering apprehension by disposing of the body), and one (aggravated manslaughter) into count two (felony murder). The trial court found aggravating factor one and two, N.J.S.A. 2C:44-2(a)(1), (2), but stated that "I'm not going to weigh either of them heavily on a qualitative basis because I do not want to have any question of the Court double counting." He then went on to find aggravating factors three, six, and nine. N.J.S.A. 2C:44-2(a)(3), (6), (9). The only mitigating factor found was six, N.J.S.A. 2C:44-2(b)(6), premised on the $5,000 restitution to the Violent Crimes Compensation Board that the judge ordered defendant to pay.
Ultimately, Artwell was sentenced to life imprisonment, subject to NERA, and, upon being paroled, to a five-year-period of supervision for count two. He received an additional five-year consecutive term for count eight, ...