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State v. Dreadin


October 19, 2009


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Burlington County, Indictment No. 04-11-01296.

Per curiam.


Submitted September 15, 2009

Before Judges Wefing, Grall and LeWinn.

Tried to a jury, defendant Pamela J. Dreadin was convicted of first-degree aggravated manslaughter, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4(a); on May 25, 2007, she was sentenced to a term of ten years of incarceration with a parole ineligibility period of eight-and-a-half years.

The tragic facts in this matter may be briefly summarized as follows. During the early morning hours of October 19, 2003, defendant drove her truck into a heavily wooded area of Eastampton Township in Burlington County in an effort to locate her husband. Defendant's twenty-two-month-old grandson was also in the vehicle. Defendant's truck became mired in mud on the side of a residential driveway. Defendant repeatedly attempted to extricate her vehicle from the mud. Heat from the truck's exhaust system ignited vegetation on the ground, causing the vehicle to catch fire. Defendant, observing flames developing, approached the nearby residence and asked the occupants of the home to contact the police. By the time the police arrived, the truck was fully engulfed in flames. At this point, defendant revealed for the first time that her grandson was inside the vehicle. The child died as a result of injuries suffered in the fire.

At trial, the State presented evidence that defendant was under the influence of methamphetamines at the time of the incident. A State expert testified that methamphetamine use would have caused defendant to exercise poor judgment during that incident.

On appeal, defendant raises one issue for our consideration:

The Trial Court Committed Reversible Error By Excluding Members Of The Defendant's Family During Jury Selection.

Having considered this contention in light of the record and the controlling legal principles, we conclude that it is entirely without merit; therefore, we affirm.

Notwithstanding defendant's reference to the exclusion of "members" of her family, it appears that only defendant's husband was asked to leave the courtroom temporarily. We say "appears" because the trial transcript contains no record of such an event.

Defendant claims that a videotape of the trial "bears out the event of family exclusion during jury selection." Having viewed that videotape, we note that it reflects the following events. After engaging defendant in a colloquy concerning her rights, the trial judge stated, apparently to defense counsel: "[Y]ou need to move up here and your client... whoever's with you, the gentleman's going to have to wait outside because we're going to need every seat for our jury." The "gentleman" so referenced is defendant's husband.

The videotape then reflects that defense counsel immediately responded, "'Okay, no problem[,]'" and turned to defendant's husband and stated: "'Don, if you want to stay in the anteroom... [inaudible].'" The trial judge then noted that conference rooms were available outside the courtroom where defendant's husband could wait. Thus, the videotape shows that defendant's husband was the only person present on defendant's behalf who was asked to leave the courtroom during jury selection.

Defendant asserts that her case "virtually mirrors the facts" in State v. Cuccio, 350 N.J. Super. 248 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 174 N.J. 43 (2002). We disagree. In Cuccio, defense counsel and the prosecutor met with the judge in chambers. The conference was not recorded. When counsel and the judge returned to the courtroom, defense counsel stated on the record that he had requested in chambers that defendant's brother, an attorney, be allowed to sit at counsel table to assist since he had been helping defense counsel "all along" with regard to defendant's case. [Id. at 258.]

The trial judge decided that it would be "'fair to both sides'" to "'simply exclude everyone.'" Ibid.

We held that, under those circumstances, the exclusion of both the public and the parties' family members, including the defendant's brother who was an attorney, lasting one full day and part of another day of trial, violated the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. We concluded that "the scope of the closure was substantial rather than de minimis." Id. at 268.

By contrast, here we conclude that the "closure" resulting in the exclusion of defendant's husband during jury selection, due to space limitations in the courtroom, was de minimis. The scope and duration of the exclusion of defendant's husband were not of sufficient consequence to constitute a violation of defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a public trial.



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