On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Indictment No. 06-08-1379.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 1, 2009
Before Judges Stern, Graves and Sabatino.
A jury acquitted defendant Tameka Nelson of first-degree aggravated manslaughter in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4(a)(1) (count two) for causing the death of Idatte Hamilton (Ida or Hamilton) under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life; but defendant was found guilty of second-degree vehicular homicide in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5(a) (count one) for causing Hamilton's death by driving a vehicle recklessly; and third-degree leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5.1 (count three). On April 28, 2008, the trial court sentenced defendant to an eight-year prison term on count one with an eighty-five percent period of parole ineligibility under the No Early Release Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2, and a consecutive four-year term on count three. Appropriate monetary fees, assessments, and penalties were also imposed. Defendant appeals and we affirm.
On May 4, 2005, at approximately 8:15 p.m., Wendy Wallace (Wallace), Hamilton's cousin, was driving to Hamilton's house to pick her up and take her for pizza. The headlights on Wallace's car were on when she arrived at Hamilton's house, and Wallace parked on the street because she saw Hamilton "coming down the stairs." As Hamilton was walking towards the car, Wallace noticed that a young African-American girl, later identified as defendant, "glanced back" in Wallace's direction before entering her vehicle, an Acura Integra. Defendant's Acura was facing in the same direction as Wallace's Mitsubishi, and the Acura was parked about two car lengths in front of the Mitsubishi.
According to Wallace, who was the only eyewitness to testify, defendant's vehicle then "accelerated" in reverse hitting the front passenger side of Wallace's car and Hamilton, who was about to enter the car. Defendant's vehicle then sideswiped "almost the entire length" of Wallace's car. As this was taking place, Wallace heard loud banging noises and she heard her cousin screaming.
Defendant's vehicle did not stop after sideswiping the Mitsubishi and hitting Hamilton. Wallace testified that defendant's car "continued accelerating" in reverse and struck another car that was parked behind Wallace's car before finally hitting a third vehicle parked on the other side of the street. At that point, defendant's vehicle stopped, and Wallace "saw the girl jump out of her car and run." Wallace testified that defendant's car was "about 20 feet away," and she heard her cousin, who was pinned under defendant's car, calling for help.
Wallace dialed 9-1-1 as she exited her car and ran to defendant's car. Hamilton was still conscious and was screaming. Wallace sat in the street and held Hamilton's hand until help arrived. Hamilton was then removed from underneath defendant's vehicle and taken to the Jersey City Medical Center, where she died at 10:55 p.m. on the same day.
On May 5, 2005, at approximately 12:20 a.m., defendant turned herself in. According to Sergeant Joseph Olszewski, defendant told him, "I think you're looking for me." When asked to be more specific, defendant said, "I was involved in the accident." Defendant then asked about Hamilton's condition, and when she learned that Hamilton had died, defendant began to cry. Olszewski then read defendant her rights and placed her under arrest.
Because the crimes of aggravated manslaughter and vehicular homicide both require a showing that defendant acted recklessly in causing the death of another, the central dispute at trial was whether defendant operated her vehicle recklessly. In his opening statement, the prosecutor told the jury: "If you drive recklessly and someone gets killed, it's not an accident. It's a crime." On the other hand, defendant's attorney told the jury that what happened on May 4, 2005, "was an accident, a tragic, unfortunate accident," because defendant did not know that Hamilton was "behind her car at that time."
During the trial, Police Officer James Canfield (Canfield) testified that when he arrived on the scene, "Hamilton was being removed from underneath the vehicle by rescue personnel." After Hamilton was removed, Canfield examined defendant's car. During his inspection of the Acura, he noticed a purse and a cell phone*fn1 in the front seat. While looking through the purse, he found some "miscellaneous items" and a motor vehicle identification card with defendant's name on it.
Canfield ran defendant's identification number through the Department of Motor Vehicles database and her license came up as suspended. However, Canfield testified that defendant's driving privileges were not to be suspended until May 14, 2005, ten days after the accident, and conceded that he may have used "the wrong date on the license or something" when he entered the information into the computer. In light of this testimony, the trial court instructed the jury that any evidence pertaining to the status of defendant's driver's license could not "be considered as evidence of recklessness":
The State has submitted evidence [of] defendant's lack of [a] valid driver's license -- and there is some issue of whether it was suspended. I have told you they have not proven that it was. This evidence cannot be considered as evidence of recklessness; rather, if you consider it at all, it's only in the context of whether it contributed to the defendant's state of mind when and if you find that she did leave the accident. In other words, you're not deciding whether her license is suspended or that she didn't have a driver's license. That doesn't determine if she's guilty of this offense or any offense. You may not consider lack of a valid driver's license as being an act of recklessness in the prior count or as to contributing to her in and of itself leaving the scene.
The State also presented the testimony of Dr. Eddy Lilavois, a forensic pathologist for the Regional Medical Examiner's Office, who performed the autopsy on Hamilton. Dr. Lilavois testified that the victim's point of impact injury was on her right leg, about nine inches above her heel. The bone did not fracture, however, and according to Dr. Lilavois if defendant's vehicle had stopped, "the victim would have walked away." Dr. Lilavois testified that the cause of death was several "blunt impact injuries to the torso with subsequent fractures of bones and lacerations of vital organs, including the lungs and the liver," and the victim subsequently "bled out."
Defendant elected not to testify, but Dr. Wayne F. Nolte, an accident reconstruction expert, testified for the defense. Based on his investigation, Dr. Nolte described the events that occurred on May 4, 2005, as follows:
Tameka Nelson got in her car, a 1995 Acura, in front of the property known as 187 Claremont Avenue. She at some point backed up that vehicle, and when she did, her vehicle came in contact with a . . . grey 2003 Mitsubishi Gallant that was parked in front of property 189, which is located west of where she was parked. But the Gallant was in the street, parallel to the parking space. It was not stopped in the parking space adjacent to the curb, but out in the street.
Ida Hamilton came out of the residence and went to the passenger side door of the Mitsubishi Gallant, and while she was there, the Nelson vehicle came back, struck the right side of the Mitsubishi. Basically a sideswipe that started from near the front of that car on the passenger side. Moved back and ultimately struck Ida Hamilton, and then continued back.
As it continued back, it did continue back at an angle, and the angle was more toward the north or going across the roadway.
The right rear of Tameka Nelson's car came in contact with the left front corner of a Pontiac that was parked in front of property 190 -- 191. That car was parked near the driveway. It was contacted on the right front corner, and the Nelson vehicle then continued across the street to where it struck the side of a Ford van, a Windstar van that was parked ...