On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Indictment No. 05-03-0223.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 29, 2009
Before Judges Rodríguez, Yannotti and Chambers.
Defendant Charles Poe was tried before a jury and found guilty of murder, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(2). The court sentenced him to life in prison, with a period of parole ineligibility as prescribed by the No Early Release Act (NERA), N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2. Defendant appeals from the judgment of conviction entered on March 23, 2007, as amended, and challenges his conviction and the sentence imposed. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.
We begin with a statement of the relevant facts, drawn from the evidence presented at defendant's trial. On the afternoon of August 3, 2004, Amanda Dembowski (Dembowski) was walking down Calhoun Street in Trenton, New Jersey with a friend, Charlene. They ran into defendant, who knew Charlene. They spoke briefly outside defendant's house. Later, Charlene and Dembowski went to defendant's house, where they spent some time drinking and talking. After several hours, Charlene left. Defendant and Dembowski engaged in sexual relations and Dembowski stayed the night. Dembowski agreed to live with defendant.
On August 6, 2004, Dembowski went shopping with her good friend, Kenyatta Ward (Ward). The following day, at about 4:00 p.m., Dembowski phoned Ward and asked if she wanted to "hang out" at defendant's house. Ward agreed. Defendant and Dembowski drove to Ward's house to pick her up. Defendant drove to a liquor store, where he purchased liquor and cigarettes. Defendant then stopped at "the projects" so they could purchase marijuana. They returned to defendant's house and went to his room. Defendant's cousin, Zoran Beal (Beal), who also lived in the house, came home and joined them.
According to Dembowski, Ward and Beal smoked marijuana while she and defendant drank liquor. Beal left around 6:30 p.m. Ward was sitting in a chair watching a movie. Dembowski and defendant laid down on the bed and Dembowski fell asleep. At around 7:00 p.m., Dembowski woke up.
Dembowski heard Ward ask defendant if she could use his cell phone to call her boyfriend because she was ready to go home. Defendant refused. Defendant and Ward then argued for several minutes. Ward also argued with Dembowski because Ward wanted Dembowski to walk her home but Dembowski told Ward that she should wait for defendant to drive her home.
Ward continued arguing with defendant, insisting that she wanted to leave the house. Defendant told her to wait until Beal returned. Ward agreed but she and defendant continued to argue. Ward then stopped speaking. Defendant told Ward that, because she was in his house, he could do whatever he wanted to her. Dembowski said that defendant began to speak to Ward in an aggressive manner. Ward was sitting in a chair. Defendant sat on the bed in front of Ward and began to rub her legs and thighs. Ward told defendant not to touch her but defendant ignored her.
Ward got up from the chair and yelled to Dembowski that she should walk her home. Dembowski told her to wait because it was too cold outside to walk. Defendant and Ward continued to argue. Defendant then said that he was going to lock the door and "[n]obody's leaving now." He went downstairs, locked the front door, came back upstairs and locked the door to his room. Ward stood near the bed and remained quiet. Defendant yelled at Ward and said that no one "is leaving now."
Defendant took a pair of handcuffs from a dresser drawer. He threw them at Ward and told her to put them on. Ward did not comply. She remained quiet. Defendant continued to demand that Ward put on the handcuffs but Ward did not do so. Defendant took out a BB gun from the dresser. He put the gun in his waistband and told Ward to put on the handcuffs. Defendant instructed Dembowski to "grab the knives" that were hanging on the wall behind the bed. Dembowski retrieved the knives and handed them to defendant. Defendant waived one of the knives in front of Ward's face and demanded that she put on the handcuffs.
Ward began to cry. She pleaded with defendant to let her leave. Defendant waved the knife in front of Ward's face. He also waved the gun. Ward became more upset. Dembowski testified that defendant was "amused" by this and "liked it." Ward was shaking when she put one of the handcuffs on. Defendant yelled at her to put on the other handcuff. Ward stood in the corner, cried and pleaded with defendant to let her leave. Defendant grabbed Ward's arm and put on the handcuff.
Dembowski testified that she was "really scared." Defendant told her to get a plastic bag. She said that she retrieved a white, plastic bag that was hanging on the doorknob. Defendant told Dembowski to put the bag on Ward's head. She threw the bag and it landed on top of Ward's head. Dembowski told Ward that she had to comply with defendant's demands or he would kill them both. Defendant and Ward struggled as he attempted to pull the plastic bag down around Ward's head.
According to Dembowski, Ward fell on the bed and defendant fell down next to her. Ward was crying and kicking. Defendant sat on top of Ward, held her down and tied the bag over her head. He twisted the bag and tied it in a knot. Ward bit through the bag. Defendant told Dembowski to get another plastic bag. Defendant placed the second bag over Ward's head. Ward was kicking and struggling.
Defendant told Dembowski to hold Ward's ankles. Dembowski complied. Dembowski handed defendant another plastic bag. Defendant took the first two bags off of Ward's head, placed the third bag on her head and tied it. Ward continued to struggle and bit through the third bag. Dembowski handed defendant another bag, which he placed on Ward's head. Eventually, Ward stopped moving. She was dead.
Defendant and Dembowski placed Ward in a sheet and carried her body to the basement. They returned to defendant's room, where they briefly discussed what to do with the body. Defendant left the house and returned about thirty to sixty minutes later with food. Dembowski suggested that they take Ward's body to Pennsylvania and "drop" it there. Defendant agreed.
Dembowski further testified that she and defendant then: started to talk about, like, you know, I guess how we was feeling about it, or just what happened, so we was discussing that.
And then he was, like, you know, that he -- it came out in the discussion, like, he shot somebody before, so, you know, I guess, like, this wasn't really nothing.
Q: When did he tell you that?
A: That same night we was in the room when we was talking about what to do with her.
Q: How was he acting when he told you that he had shot someone?
A: To me, it felt as thought like he didn't really think it was a big deal, just the way that he just came out and said it.
Defendant and Dembowski carried Ward's body from the basement, tied it up with an orange extension cord and covered it with two large, heavy-duty garbage bags. They placed the body in defendant's car and drove to Pennsylvania, where they disposed of the body. Ward's body was found on August 9, 2004, by a person working on his property. He reported the matter to the police.
The police commenced an investigation that eventually led them to defendant and Dembowski. On August 11, 2004, defendant and Dembowski were taken to the police station. Defendant gave the police a statement in which he admitted that he had handcuffed Ward. He said ...