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State of New Jersey v. William Ruiz

December 21, 2010


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Morris County, Indictment No. 05-03-0355.

Per curiam.


Submitted November 30, 2010 - Decided Before Judges Parrillo and Yannotti.

Defendant, William Ruiz, appeals from an order of the Law Division denying his petition for post-conviction relief (PCR). We affirm.

Defendant was indicted for second-degree robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1a(2), third-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4d, and fourth-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5d. The State's evidence at trial established that on November 9, 2004, defendant snatched a $100 bill from a bar patron at the Dart Inn in Dover. The bar patron, who had been attempting to pay his bar tab at the time of the incident, and his friend, followed defendant outside in an effort to recover the $100 bill. Defendant then brandished a knife, swinging it at the victim. Dover Police arrived at the scene, arrested defendant and recovered a blue-handled knife in defendant's pocket, the same type used to menace the victim. At police headquarters, Officer Michael Thiel witnessed defendant throw a $100 bill to the floor and cover it with his foot.

The jury convicted defendant of all charges. After appropriate mergers, defendant was sentenced to an aggregate five-year term, with eighty-five percent to be served before parole eligibility under the No Early Release Act (NERA), N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.

Defendant appealed, arguing among other things, that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence and the product of jury taint. Defendant also claimed that he never unequivocally waived his constitutional right to testify. We affirmed the judgment of conviction, finding none of the issues raised were of sufficient merit to warrant extended discussion in a written opinion. State v. Ruiz, No. A-4786-05 (App. Div. Apr. 30, 2007) (slip op. at 4). In so holding, we found the evidence of defendant's guilt "compelling" and that there was no juror taint. Id. at 4-7. As to defendant's election not to testify, we found:

Here, the trial judge afforded defense counsel a recess to discuss with his client whether or not to testify. When trial resumed, counsel stated that defendant chose not to testify and wanted the jury told that his decision cannot be used against him.

Defendant voiced no disagreement with this representation of counsel. Indeed, no claim is made that counsel was ineffective in this regard. Under the circumstances, we are satisfied that the on-the-record colloquy demonstrates that defendant clearly and unequivocally waived his right to testify. [Id. at 8.]

Defendant filed a timely PCR petition re-raising the issues of weight of the evidence and juror taint. He also claimed ineffective assistance of trial counsel, who allegedly denied defendant his right to testify and did not adequately consult with defendant prior to trial, investigate defendant's case or develop a defense strategy. Specifically, defendant argued trial counsel failed to obtain an alleged videotape, which would have purportedly shown defendant did not discard the $100 bill, or to call witnesses, who would supposedly have testified to defendant's lack of motive for committing the crime and his absence from the Dart Inn where the robbery occurred.

An evidentiary hearing was held on defendant's PCR petition, during which defendant's sister testified that had trial counsel called her as a witness, she would have explained that defendant had no reason to commit the robbery because his relatives regularly provided monetary support to defendant. Defendant also testified at the PCR hearing, claiming that trial counsel neither met with him during the year leading up to his trial while he was free on bail nor allowed him to testify during trial. According to defendant, he wanted to testify that Dover Police had planted a knife in his back pocket and recorded his actions on videotape at the station following his arrest, which would have demonstrated that he had not dropped the $100 bill on the floor in an attempt to cover up the evidence. Lastly, defendant testified that the bartender and patrons at the Dart Inn would have confirmed his absence from the bar on the night of the robbery.

At the PCR hearing, defendant's trial counsel testified that it was his practice to provide discovery to, and discuss the case with, defendant. In fact, counsel stated that he likely discussed the case with defendant during the multiple status conferences prior to trial, including a possible plea bargain, which defendant had rejected. Moreover, counsel was unaware of defendant's sister, and, in any event, would not have called her as a witness because her testimony was not relevant and, in fact, may have harmed defendant's character in the eyes of the jury. Counsel also testified that he did not know of the identity of the bartender at the Dart Inn or of any other patrons at the bar that night. Indeed, defendant never advised counsel that he was not at the Dart Inn on the night of the robbery.

The PCR court denied defendant's petition. Specifically, the court held that defendant's claims challenging the weight of the evidence, his election not to testify and the court's excusing a juror were previously addressed in defendant's direct appeal and thus barred under Rule 3:22-5. The court also rejected defendant's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, finding that (1) trial counsel had not been ineffective in failing to call defendant's sister to testify because her testimony would not have been relevant to the case; (2) trial counsel had discussed the accuracy of defendant's criminal record with defendant; and (3) trial counsel had discussed with defendant his decision not to testify. As to the latter two findings, the PCR court specifically concluded:

[I]t's clear to the Court that there . . . had been a lengthy discussion on [defendant's prior record] with [defendant] and [trial counsel]. It was done in the courtroom. In fact, there were occasions when [defendant] interrupted [trial counsel] and tried to say something to the Judge about his record. So the record was clearly discussed in the courtroom ...

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