On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Indictment No. 03-06-2275.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 25, 2010
Before Judges Rodríguez and Grall.
Defendant Zoranda Paulson appeals from the denial of her application for post-conviction relief. We affirm substantially for the reasons stated by Judge Natal in his oral opinion delivered December 5, 2008.
Defendant's conviction is based on her plea of guilty to aggravated manslaughter, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4a(1). The plea was accepted by Judge Natal and entered pursuant to an agreement with the State. The State agreed to amend count one of the indictment, which charged defendant with murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11- 3a(1)-(2), to aggravated manslaughter. The State also promised to recommend a sentence of twenty-two years, subject to terms of parole ineligibility and supervision mandated by the No Early Release Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2, and to dismiss the remaining counts of the indictment.*fn1 Defendant was serving sentences of probation on other crimes, and the sentences imposed on revocation of probation were to run concurrent with the sentences imposed for aggravated manslaughter.
On July 30, 2004, Judge Natal imposed a sentence in conformity with the plea agreement and entered judgment. Subsequently, he denied defendant's motion for reduction of sentence.
On defendant's direct appeal, this court remanded for re- sentencing in accordance with State v. Abdullah, 184 N.J. 497 (2005). Judge Natal also presided at the hearing on remand. He permitted defendant's attorney to argue mitigating factors and offered defendant an opportunity to speak, but the sentence was not modified. This court affirmed the sentence after conducting oral argument in accordance with Rule 2:9-11. Defendant did not file a petition for certification.
Defendant did, however, file a timely petition for post- conviction relief. Judge Natal heard oral argument and considered the petition. He delivered an oral opinion addressing each of the claims raised by defendant and her attorney.
The facts of the crime recited in this paragraph are drawn from the factual basis defendant provided at the time of her guilty plea. On August 11, 2002, defendant was at home with her boyfriend, Sherman Artwell. When her ex-boyfriend, Ronald Jackson, came to the house, defendant told Artwell to go upstairs and stay there until Jackson left. When she and Jackson argued, Artwell came downstairs. A fight ensued; Artwell choked Jackson and duct-taped his nose, mouth, hands and legs. Defendant and Artwell put Jackson in the basement and left him there for eight or nine hours.
During the early morning hours, defendant and her cousin took Jackson from the basement, put him in his car and drove to a vacant lot. There, defendant and her cousin used lighter fluid to set the car on fire with Jackson inside. Although defendant claimed she thought Jackson was dead when she set the fire, she acknowledged that she had since learned that he was alive and died as a consequence of that fire.
Defendant raises these issues on appeal from the denial of her petition for post-conviction relief:
I. THE COURT ERRED IN DENYING POST-CONVICTION RELIEF WITHOUT CONDUCTING A FULL EVIDENTIARY HEARING ON THE ISSUE OF INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL BECAUSE THE DEFENDANT MADE A PRIMA FACIE SHOWING THAT TRIAL COUNSEL'S DEFICIENT PERFORMANCE AT SENTENCING AND TRIAL COUNSEL'S CONFLICT OF INTEREST SATISFIED BOTH PRONGS OF THE STRICKLAND/FRITZ TEST.
(A) TRIAL COUNSEL'S FAILURE TO ARGUE MITIGATING FACTORS AT SENTENCING; TRIAL COUNSEL'S FAILURE TO ARGUE THAT DESPITE THE PLEA AGREEMENT, THE AGGRAVATING FACTORS PRESENT COULD NOT SUPPORT THE 22 YEAR BASE CUSTODIAL TERM; AND TRIAL COUNSEL'S FAILURE TO ARGUE THAT IMPOSITION OF THE 22 YEAR BASE CUSTODIAL TERM WOULD BE UNUSUALLY "HARSH" AND "SEVERE" BECAUSE OF THE "REAL TIME ...