On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Indictment No. 05-02-0159.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted February 9, 2010
Before Judges Grall and Messano.
A jury found defendant Sheng Teo guilty of murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(1), second-degree aggravated arson, N.J.S.A. 2C:17-1a, and third-degree theft, N.J.S.A. 2C:20-3. The judge imposed the following terms of incarceration: fifty years for murder, which is subject to terms of parole ineligibility and supervision required by the No Early Release Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2; eight years for aggravated arson, two without possibility of parole, consecutive to the sentence for murder; and a four-year term for theft, concurrent with counts one and two. Defendant appeals. He claims that error in the jury instruction on a permissive inference of purpose and knowledge relevant to murder requires reversal of his conviction and that his sentence is manifestly excessive. After review of the record in light of the arguments presented, we affirm.
Shortly before midnight on November 11, 2004, Soon Fook Hui returned to his home in South Amboy, which he shared with Nee Nee Tan. Tan's Lexus was not in the driveway, and there was a fire. He put out the fire and called 911. Tan's body was found on the kitchen floor. Her corpse was covered by a sheet. Although there was a telephone cord next to her head, the phone was gone. The knobs on the kitchen stove were turned to the on position but the escaping gas was not ignited.
Tan had bruises and lacerations on her face, scalp, left ear and neck. An autopsy was done, and the cause of death was determined to be strangulation by ligature, consistent with use of a telephone cord. A fingerprint found on the kitchen counter linked defendant to the crime.
Hui knew defendant when they both lived in Singapore. When defendant came to the United States in the 1990s, Hui employed him and, from time to time, gave him money. After defendant was diagnosed with cancer, Hui gave other assistance. About a year before Tan's death, Hui refused defendant's request for a loan.
A week after Tan's death, defendant agreed to be interviewed by the police. He confessed, explaining that he had taken the train to South Amboy to collect on a debt and admitted to killing Tan, turning on the gas, throwing a burning paper into the basement of the house and leaving the home in Tan's car with the telephone from the house.
Defendant provided details. Tan let him into the house, and said she was going to phone her husband. Because he did not want Hui to know he was there, defendant grabbed a metal burner from the stove and struck her in the head three times. She fell to the floor and screamed, and he then kicked her in the head or neck. Because she was still moving, he attempted to choke her with his hands and then used the phone cord to strangle her. He then turned on the gas and tried to light a fire to destroy the evidence. He took the phone with him and left in Tan's car.
At trial, defendant gave a different account; he denied any role in the commission of the crimes and explained that in return for Hui's promise to pay him $100,000 he agreed to give a confession in conformity with a description provided by Hui and his brother.
On the basis of that evidence, the jury found defendant guilty of murder, arson and theft.
Although there was no objection to the jury instruction when it was given, defendant contends that a portion of the jury instruction on a permissive inference relevant to the state of mind required for murder was "unfair and confusing, in violation of defendant's rights to due process of law and a fair trial." We detect no impropriety in the instruction.
After instructing the jury on the State's obligation to prove that defendant "purposely or knowingly caused death or serious bodily injury resulting in death," the judge explained the permissive inference available from evidence ...