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State v. Blackmon

June 9, 2010

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
KARLTON L. BLACKMON, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On certification to 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 question presented in this appeal is whether the Appellate Division erred in ordering that defendant Karlton Blackmon be afforded a new sentencing hearing at which the sentencing court must permit defendant's step-father to be heard.

Defendant was indicted for murder and weapons offenses. He pleaded guilty to a down-graded charge of aggravated manslaughter and possession of a weapon by a convicted felon. In exchange, the State recommended a sentence of twenty years in prison for manslaughter, with a concurrent ten-year sentence for the weapon offense. As part of the plea agreement, defendant reserved the right to ask the court to impose a lesser sentence. At the plea hearing, he admitted that he and the victim, Early Bailey, had a fistfight, during which he knocked Bailey to the ground, and that he shot Bailey from about ten feet away while Bailey was still on the ground. The court accepted the plea. Prior to the sentencing date, defendant moved to withdraw his guilty plea, asserting that it was the result of stress and confusion caused by pressure his family exerted on him to accept the plea. The court denied the motion, concluding that the plea was both knowing and voluntary. The court found nothing unusual about his feeling stressed because he faced life imprisonment.

The court then proceeded to the sentencing phase. The court heard from defendant and his counsel; from Paulette Small, the mother of Bailey's three minor children and the woman with whom he was living when he died; and from the prosecutor; but the court would not allow defendant's step-father to speak on defendant's behalf. The court found that three statutory aggravating factors (risk that defendant will commit another offense, extent of prior record, and need for deterrence) and one mitigating factor (substantial grounds tending to excuse conduct but insufficient to establish defense) applied. The court rejected the other two mitigating factors raised by defendant (factor three, that he acted under strong provocation, and factor five, that the victim's conduct induced the crime) as unsupported by the record. The court found the aggravating factors outweighed the sole mitigating factor, and concluded that the twenty-year sentence recommended in the plea agreement was appropriate under all the circumstances.

Defendant appealed, challenging only his sentence. He argued that the hearing was unfair and that the court erred by permitting Bailey's "girlfriend" to speak, refusing to hear from defendant's step-father, and rejecting the argument that mitigating factor five applied. The Appellate Division entered an order remanding the matter for resentencing and directed that defendant's step-father be permitted to speak. The Supreme Court granted certification and summarily remanded the matter to the Appellate Division for a statement of reasons for its order. The appellate panel issued an order commenting that it had "no quarrel with the quantum of the sentence ultimately imposed by the trial court." The panel expressed concern that because the trial court had given no reason for refusing to permit defendant's step-father to speak, its decision could be characterized as arbitrary. The panel explained that by remanding the matter, it recognized the "uniquely natural and human reaction that defendant's step-father wished to say a few words on defendant's behalf before the trial court imposed sentence." The State again filed a petition for certification, which the Supreme Court granted. 200 N.J. 370 (2009).

HELD: Apart from those whose rights to speak at a sentencing proceeding are established by the Constitution, statutes, and Court Rules, the decision about who may be heard remains within a sentencing court's discretion. Here, the error was not necessarily the refusal to permit defendant's step-father to speak, but the failure to provide some expression of reasons for that decision sufficient to permit appellate review of whether the refusal was arbitrary or capricious. The appropriate remedy is a remand to the Law Division for an expression of reasons, not a remand for resentencing.

1. The issue in this case must be viewed in the context of rules that govern sentencing decisions and their appellate review. Sentencing uniformity is achieved through careful application of statutory aggravating and mitigating factors. Appellate review of sentencing decisions is governed by an abuse of discretion standard. Trial courts need not fear second-guessing when they exercise their discretion consistent with statutory mandates and principles established by the Court. (pp. 14-16)

2. Defendants have the right to address the court directly during the sentencing proceeding. Rule 3:21-4(b) limits the right of allocation to defendant only or, at his or her option, to defense counsel. A similar right has been extended to crime victims and their families through the Crime Victim's Bill of Rights and the Victim's Right Amendment to the Constitution. Thus, by constitutional amendment, statute, and Court Rules, a class of people who have a right to be heard has been established. It does not include family, friends, or supporters of defendants. (pp. 16-18)

3. Sentencing courts routinely exercise their discretion to permit more than one member of a victim's family to address the court. Courts also commonly permit defendants' family members and others to speak about facts that bear upon the sentence but are not otherwise plain from the record. The question presented here is whether refusing to hear from defendant's family member or doing so without giving an explanation is an abuse of discretion that warrants relief. (pp. 18-19)

4. Initially, the Court concludes that the sentencing court did not abuse its discretion in allowing Ms. Small, a relative under the statute, to speak. Also, the sentence was supported by the weighing of applicable aggravating and mitigating factors; the record supports the finding that the aggravating factors preponderated; and defendant's new argument, that his step-father could have offered information to support mitigating factor eleven, imprisonment would cause hardship to his "dependents," would not alter the result because the record does not suggest that defendant supported any dependents. (pp. 20-22)

5. By ordering a new sentencing proceeding and directing that defendant's step-father be permitted to speak, the appellate panel in theory created a new right to speak. The panel used language from decisions involving penalty phase proceedings in capital cases. There, the Court recognized that jurors charged with deciding whether the death penalty will be imposed might draw an impermissible adverse inference if pleas for mercy were not offered. In that narrow context, the Court discussed the "uniquely natural and human" desires of family members and concluded that a court could exercise its discretion to permit a family member to make a plea for mercy. Sentencing proceedings in non-capital cases do not give rise to such concerns. A judge, not jurors, makes the sentencing decision and does not expect to hear pleas for mercy from a defendant's family. By relying on capital penalty cases to justify a remand, the appellate panel imported concepts devised for that unique setting into ordinary sentencing proceedings, where they do not serve their original purpose. (pp. 22-25)

6. It is the absence of an expressed reason for the sentencing court's choice not to permit defendant's step-father to speak, rather than the choice itself, that impedes effective appellate review. The appropriate remedy is a remand for an expression of reasons because only then can there be confidence in the sentence imposed. Other than defendants and crime victims or their survivors, there is no absolute right to speak at a sentencing proceeding. A sentencing court has discretion to permit others to address the court directly. Courts need not entertain mere pleas for mercy, are not required to permit presentations that are cumulative or vengeful, should consider whether the individual has information that bears upon an aggravating or mitigating factor, and may require a proffer consistent with one of those factors from defendant's counsel. In light of the widespread practice among courts to permit members of defendants' families to be heard, the abrupt rejection of a request without any explanation might create the appearance that the proceeding was arbitrary or unfair. That choice must be accompanied by some expression of reasons sufficient to permit appellate review. (pp. 26-31)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED AS MODIFIED and the matter is REMANDED to the Law Division for further proceedings consistent with the Court's opinion.

JUSTICE LONG, CONCURRING, joined by CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER, agrees the matter should be remanded for a statement of reasons, but is concerned that the majority views a victim's right to speak as diminishing a defendant's application to present a relevant sentencing witness; if it appears that a defendant's family member has evidence bearing on an aggravating or mitigating factor, the defendant must be permitted to present it.

JUSTICES ALBIN and WALLACE, DISSENTING, are of the view that certification was improvidently granted and the appeal should be dismissed; the precise standard that should guide the trial court in determining whether a family member should speak at sentencing is not settled in light of the plurality opinion.

JUSTICES LaVECCHIA and RIVERA-SOTO join in JUSTICE HOENS's opinion. JUSTICE LONG has filed a separate, concurring opinion in which CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER joins. JUSTICES ALBIN and WALLACE have filed a dissenting opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Hoens

Argued February 1, 2010

We granted the petition for certification filed on behalf of the State of New Jersey to consider whether the Appellate Division erred in ordering that defendant Karlton Blackmon be afforded a new sentencing hearing. More specifically, we granted the petition to address whether the appellate panel, in directing that defendant's step-father be permitted to be heard, and in reasoning that the sentencing court abused its discretion by precluding him from speaking, had, in effect, created a right to be heard that exceeded its authority.

I.

Defendant was indicted for first-degree murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3, second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(a), and second-degree possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-7(b). He entered into a written plea agreement, pursuant to which he would plead guilty to a down-graded charge of first-degree aggravated manslaughter, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4(a), and second-degree possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

In exchange for defendant's guilty plea, the State agreed to dismiss the counts charging him with first-degree murder and second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose. The State also agreed to recommend a sentence of twenty years in prison, subject to the parole ineligibility and supervision provisions of the No Early Release Act (NERA), N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2, for the first-degree aggravated manslaughter count, with a concurrent ten-year sentence for the second-degree offense. As part of the plea agreement, defendant reserved the right to ask the court to impose a lesser sentence than the one to which he had agreed.

On November 7, 2005, defendant entered his guilty plea. As part of the plea colloquy, defendant described the events that led to his indictment. He admitted that he had been in Asbury Park with a number of people, and that he and the victim, Earl Bailey, had a fist fight, during which defendant punched Bailey, knocking him to the ground. Defendant further admitted that he shot Bailey from about ten feet away while Bailey was still on the ground. Although defendant asserted that he had been aiming for Bailey's leg, the shot hit Bailey in the chest, fatally wounding him. The trial court accepted the plea and the matter was scheduled for sentencing.

Prior to his sentencing date, defendant filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea. He asserted that his plea was not voluntary, but was instead the result of pressure exerted on him by his family. He contended that his mother, his aunts, his cousins, and his brother had urged him to accept the plea in order to avoid the risk of the life sentence that he would face if he were tried and convicted of murder. He certified that the stress and confusion caused by this pressure from his family resulted in a plea that was not voluntary. He further claimed that if tried, he would argue that the shooting was justified by self defense or the defense of others.

After hearing oral arguments from defendant's counsel and from the State, the trial court denied the plea withdrawal motion, concluding that defendant's plea was both knowing and voluntary. The court pointed out that the plea negotiations had been lengthy and that during the plea proceeding itself there had been no hint that defendant's plea was anything other than voluntary. Turning specifically to defendant's claim that his family had unduly pressured him, the court observed:

I don't find, not for a minute, that Mr. Blackmon was inappropriately pressured by his family. There is no doubt in my mind that his family was concerned about his welfare and about the best possible deal he could get under the circumstances. He faced a first-degree murder charge, which carries with it . . . up to life in prison with no parole for at least 30 years. That was on the table. That was something that was talked about, negotiated. . . .

At the time I took the plea from [defendant], I determined that he was credible in his explanation to me of what happened. I found that he was credible in his statements that he was entering this plea voluntarily. Of course he was stressed. Of course he felt pressured by his family. He was facing life imprisonment. He had been in jail for some time. He had run from this area and had been found in Florida and placed in custody. And of course he was under some stress. I would be very surprised if somebody who was charged with these criminal activities, facing this kind of time in prison would not be stressed. I find there is nothing specifically unusual about his being stressed.

I find that this defendant has failed to provide this Court with anything that would support his motion to withdraw the plea. I have made a determination that the plea was entered knowingly, voluntarily and willingly. I will deny the motion.

After denying defendant's motion to withdraw his guilty plea, the following ...


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