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State v. Taccetta

July 30, 2009

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
MARTIN R. TACCETTA, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(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 issue in this appeal is whether defendant received constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel based on mistaken advice given by his attorney concerning the sentencing consequences of a "favorable" plea offer defendant rejected before proceeding to a trial that resulted in his conviction of several crimes. Defendant raised his ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim in a petition for post-conviction relief (PCR) and claimed, at a hearing, that although he was innocent of one of the charges in the purported plea offer, he would have perjured himself to give a factual basis to accept the plea. Against that backdrop, the Court must decide whether defendant suffered prejudice, that is, whether but for the mistaken advice of defendant's counsel, the result would have been different.

As alleged by the State, defendant Martin Taccetta, a member of the Lucchese crime family, was involved in the extortion of brothers Pat and Vincent Storino and in the murder of Vincent Craporatta, the Storinos' uncle. Taccetta was charged with murder, first-degree racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering, and two counts of theft by extortion. In 1993, following a trial, the jury acquitted defendant of Craporatta's murder and convicted him of the other charges. The court imposed a life sentence with a twenty-five-year parole ineligibility period on the racketeering charge (the conspiracy charge was merged) and a ten-year term with a five-year period of parole ineligibility on each of the extortion charges, with the latter sentences to run concurrent with each other but consecutive to the racketeering sentence. Thus, defendant received an aggregate term of life plus ten years with a thirty-year parole disqualifier. The Appellate Division affirmed defendant's convictions. The Court denied defendant's petition for certification.

In 1998, defendant filed a petition for post-conviction relief, alleging various theories of ineffective assistance of counsel. The only issue here is his claim that he rejected the State's plea offer based on his counsel's mistaken advice about the sentence he faced if he were acquitted of involvement in Craporatta's murder. In 2005, following an appeal and a remand by the Appellate Division to allow for an evidentiary hearing, the PCR judge determined that defendant was deprived of his constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel. Accordingly, defendant's convictions were reversed and a new trial was ordered.

Among his findings of fact, the PCR judge found that the State offered to allow defendant to plead guilty to aggravated manslaughter and first-degree racketeering in return for a maximum term of twenty years in prison with an eight-year parole disqualifier. The judge also found that defendant's counsel misadvised him about the potential sentencing consequences. Defendant's attorney told him that if he were acquitted of the murder and lesser-included homicide offenses and convicted of all other charges, his maximum sentence exposure would be a twenty-year term subject to a ten-year parole disqualifier. In truth, defendant faced a life sentence if convicted of first-degree racketeering with possible consecutive sentences on other charges. The PCR judge concluded that defendant would have taken the plea agreement if counsel had properly explained his sentencing prospects.

In concluding that defendant was prejudiced by deficient advice, the PCR judge accepted that defendant would have lied under oath to take the advantageous plea offer. At the PCR hearing, defendant maintained that he was innocent of any involvement in the murder, but he insisted that had his counsel properly advised him, he would have perjured himself and admitted to committing aggravated manslaughter to obtain the benefit of the plea deal. Thus, the PCR judge vacated the jury verdict premised on the fact that defendant would have perjured himself --falsely admitting guilt to an offense to which he protested his innocence -- to secure the benefit of the earlier proposed plea deal.

The Appellate Division affirmed. The Supreme Court granted the State's motion for leave to appeal the PCR judge's ordering a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel. 195 N.J. 513 (2008).

HELD: Defendant cannot demonstrate that he suffered prejudice. Even ifhe had been offered a plea agreement, and regardless of any deficient advice from his attorney about his potential sentencing exposure following a trial, based on his protestation of innocence at the PCR hearing, defendant could not have given a truthful factual basis in entering a guilty plea to the State's purported plea offer. A trial court cannot be complicit in a defendant's plan to commit perjury, and a PCR court cannot vacate a jury verdict following a fair trial on the ground that defendant would have pled guilty if he had been given the opportunity to lie under oath.

1. The United States and New Jersey Constitutions guarantee an accused the right to the effective assistance of counsel. Under the two-pronged Strickland/Fritz standard for assessing ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims under our State Constitution, the defendant must show that counsel's performance was deficient and the deficient performance prejudiced him. To satisfy the prejudice prong, a defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. (pp. 12-14)

2. The Court need not review the soundness of the PCR judge's factual findings that a plea offer was made and that defendant, if properly advised by his attorney, would have entered a plea of guilty. As a matter of law, defendant could not have entered a guilty plea to the purported plea proposal because he testified that he would have lied under oath in order to plead guilty to aggravated manslaughter. Thus, he would have been compelled to go to trial. He cannot establish that but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. (pp. 14-16)

3. In this State, a defendant may not plead guilty to a crime that the defendant maintains he or she did not commit, and a court may not be complicit in accepting such a plea. In our criminal justice system, we strive to minimize the ultimate miscarriage of justice -- the conviction of an innocent person. For that reason, if a defendant's attorney informs the trial court that the defendant claims to be innocent, a guilty plea should be refused. Moreover, it is unethical for an attorney to knowingly assist a client to perpetrate a fraud on the court by encouraging a client to lie under oath. (pp. 16-18)

4. A PCR court cannot vacate a jury verdict following a fair trial on the ground that defendant would have pled guilty if he had been given the opportunity to lie under oath. To allow otherwise would suggest that the requirement of a truthful factual basis at a plea colloquy is an empty formality. (pp. 18-19)

5. Defendant argues that he would have successfully entered a plea if his counsel had correctly advised him of the sentencing consequences. His argument requires the Court to presume that he would have lied about his involvement in the murder, and that in giving a factual basis for his plea he would not have revealed his claim of innocence. If he had disclosed to the trial court that he was guiltless, the court would have been required to reject the plea. Defendant argues that if that occurred, he and the State would have come to some other satisfactory plea agreement. That is pure speculation that finds no support in the record. (pp. 19-20)

6. Although sometimes an accused, unknown to the trial judge, will perjure himself to put through a plea agreement, a court cannot condone that practice. Here, the PCR judge found that, had defendant been given the opportunity, he would have perjured himself at the plea hearing, and an unwitting court would have accepted the plea offer. On that basis, the PCR judge vacated a jury verdict that was the result of a fair trial. That result is antithetical to our court rules, case law, and the administration of justice and, therefore, the Court must reject it. (pp. 20-21)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED, the PCR court's grant of post-conviction relief is VACATED, defendant's convictions and sentence are REINSTATED, and the matter is REMANDED to the PCR court for proceedings consistent with the Court's opinion.

JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, WALLACE, RIVERA-SOTO and HOENS join in JUSTICE ALBIN's opinion. CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER did not participate.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Albin

Argued January 20, 2009

In 1993, defendant Martin Taccetta was convicted by a jury of crimes contained in a multi-count indictment and was sentenced to an aggregate term of life imprisonment plus ten years with a thirty-year parole disqualifier. In 2005, defendant was granted post-conviction relief (PCR) based on a judicial finding of ineffective assistance of counsel. The PCR judge found that defendant rejected a plea offer -- an offer that he otherwise would have accepted -- because his attorney had misinformed him about the sentencing consequences that would follow if defendant were found guilty of certain crimes in the indictment. On that basis, the PCR judge ordered a new trial. The Appellate Division affirmed.

We now reverse. Even if defendant had been offered a plea agreement, a point hotly disputed by the State, the trial court would have been unable to accept a guilty plea by defendant to the charge of aggravated manslaughter, one of the charges in the proposed plea offer. Defendant testified at the PCR hearing that he was innocent of that charge, and although he professed that he would have perjured himself to gain the benefit of the plea agreement, our court rules and case law do not permit either the taking of a plea, or the sanctioning of one, that is based on a known lie. Because a trial court cannot give its seal of approval to, or become complicit in, a defendant's plan to commit perjury at a plea hearing, a PCR court, engaging in a hindsight review, cannot hold that a plea would have been acceptable had a defendant lied under oath. For that reason, we reinstate the jury's verdict, which followed a fair trial.

I.

A.

This case involved a battle between the Lucchese and Bruno-Scarfo organized crime families for control of the profits from certain illegal gambling activities in this State.*fn1 Both organized crime families were either extorting or attempting to extort money from brothers Pat and Vincent Storino, who were among the principals in a business that manufactured and distributed Joker Poker video slot machines. In this turf war in which both families were seeking the lion's share of tribute from the Storinos, Thomas Ricciardi, a "made" member of the Lucchese crime family, beat to death Vincent Craporatta, the Storinos' uncle, for failing to make timely payments to his "family." Defendant Martin Taccetta also was a member of the Lucchese crime family and, as alleged by the State, was involved not only in the extortion of the Storinos, but also in Craporatta's murder.

A state grand jury returned an indictment against defendant Martin Taccetta and co-defendants Michael Taccetta (defendant's brother), Michael Ryan, Anthony Accetturo, Joseph Sodano, and Ricciardi. In particular, defendant was charged with murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1), (2), N.J.S.A. 2C:2-6; first-degree racketeering, N.J.S.A. 2C:41-2(c), N.J.S.A. 2C:2-6; second-degree conspiracy to commit racketeering, N.J.S.A. 2C:41-2(b) to (d); and two counts of second-degree theft by extortion, ...


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