February 2, 2011
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
RAYSHON GADDIS, A/K/A RASHEEN ARMSTRONG, A/K/A BAYSHON COOPER, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Indictment No. 04-11-1654.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 4, 2011
Before Judges Parrillo, Yannotti and Skillman.
Defendant was tried before a jury and found guilty of the first-degree murder of Brad DeBlasi (DeBlasi), in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1) or (2). Defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment and required to serve 85% of seventy-five years before parole, as required by the No Early Release Act (NERA), N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2. Defendant appeals from the judgment of conviction dated February 26, 2007. We affirm.
In 2004, defendant was incarcerated in the Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU) at East Jersey State Prison, where he was serving a fifteen-year sentence for armed robbery. On June 24, 2004, DeBlasi was moved into a cell with defendant on Delta Wing. Ordinarily inmates in the ASU are on lockdown for twenty-three hours a day, with one hour for recreation, but because DeBlasi and defendant had covered the window in the door to their cell, they were locked down for twenty-four hours a day.
On July 18, 2004, Corrections Officer James Terrell (Terrell) was assigned to Delta Wing. He was required to make a periodic check on the inmates. At 2:00 p.m., he saw DeBlasi and defendant "alert and breathing" in their assigned bunks. At around 4:00 p.m., Terrell again noted that DeBlasi and defendant were "alert and alive" in their cell. About forty minutes later, Terrell responded to a medical emergency in the cell.
Sergeant Scott Holliday (Holliday) testified that in July 2004, he worked as a Senior Corrections Officer in the ASU. On July 18, 2004, Holliday was assigned to kitchen detail. At about 4:35 p.m., Holliday entered the third tier on Delta Wing to deliver meals to the inmates. He looked into defendant's cell and saw him washing his hands and body in the sink. Defendant told Holliday that DeBlasi "just had a seizure."
Holliday looked to the bottom bunk and saw DeBlasi "hanging over the bed," and called to Terrell for medical assistance. He handcuffed defendant. As he was doing so, Holliday noticed that defendant was "sweating profusely and his blood was pumping." Holliday's supervisor, Sergeant Henry Fischer (Fischer), arrived and ordered Holliday to place defendant in the shower next to his cell.
Fischer entered the cell. He saw DeBlasi on the bottom bunk. He had dark marks under his eyes, heavy bruising, very poor skin color, blood around his mouth and heavy scarring. Fischer said that DeBlasi showed no signs of exterior movement. Fischer started chest compressions and ordered another officer to retrieve a stretcher.
DeBlasi was removed from the cell and taken to the lobby area to meet the paramedics. Fischer noticed that DeBlasi's shirt was inside out and his pants were reversed. A paramedic told Fischer to stop his attempt to resuscitate DeBlasi. The paramedic found no cardiac activity and pronounced DeBlasi dead. Fischer returned to DeBlasi's and defendant's cell and he saw "blood everywhere[.]"
Anthony Aversano (Aversano), an investigator in the Department of Corrections (DOC), arrived at the ASU lobby around 5:00 p.m. and observed DeBlasi's body on a stretcher. Aversano photographed the body and went to the cell. He rolled up the blankets and sheets, noting that they were covered with blood. Aversano observed "blood splatter and drops" on the floor, wall and ceiling of the cell.
Aversano also saw a sleeve of thermal underwear in the toilet. He found two of DeBlasi's photo albums, which contained a number of references to the "Crips" gang. Certain documents seized from defendant's locker had references to the "Bloods" gang.
Andrew Falzon (Falzon), assistant medical examiner for Middlesex County, viewed DeBlasi's body on the stretcher. He noticed "extensive bruising all over" DeBlasi's face, "including bilateral bruising of the eyes[,] [e]xtensive swelling of the facial tissues including the lips," and "smeared partially dried blood on the face." He noticed a yellow bruise on DeBlasi's face, and that DeBlasi's undergarment was on "backwards." Falzon saw extensive blood splatter on the walls of the cell, including the wall above the upper bunk bed.
The following day, Falzon performed an autopsy on DeBlasi's body. He testified that the injuries to DeBlasi's face were consistent with a beating rather than a fall. Falzon found a tiny fracture of the right orbital bone, which would only be caused by the application of direct force to the eye, not by a fall on a flat surface.
Falzon stated that the vast majority of DeBlasi's injuries had been sustained within six hours before his death. DeBlasi's injuries also were consistent with a seizure. The autopsy revealed extensive bruising to the front portions of the brain and a subdural hematoma. Falzon testified that the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head and the manner of death was homicide.
David Carroway (Carroway) testified that in December 2004, he was incarcerated at the Middlesex County correctional facility in a cell immediately adjacent to defendant's cell. Carroway said that he was speaking to another inmate and defendant "jumped into the conversation" and started to discuss the charge in this case. Defendant said that he had talked his cellmate into joining the "Bloods" gang. Defendant stated that, to initiate his cellmate into the gang, he gave his cellmate a thirty-one-second ritual beating, which consisted of "a lot of body work" and a "shot to the head."
Defendant said that, following this initiation into the "Bloods", someone told him that his cellmate was a member of the "Crips," which is a rival gang. According to Carroway, defendant stated that at that point, the cellmate "became food and he had to eat him." Defendant said that, while his cellmate sat on the top bunk, he punched him in the side of the head, knocking him off the bunk.
Defendant said that he proceeded to beat the cellmate in the corner of the cell. The cellmate tried to escape and wound up on the bottom bunk. Defendant continued to beat the cellmate on the bottom bunk. Defendant said that blood was "flying everywhere" and "splattering all over the top of the bunk[.]"
Defendant told Carroway that he beat the cellmate until he stopped breathing. Defendant stated that he had wrapped his hands in sheets so that the correction officers would be unable to tell that he had been fighting. After the cellmate died, defendant flushed the wraps in the toilet.
Defendant did not testify at trial. He advanced two theories in his defense. Defendant's attorney argued in summation that DeBlasi's death was the result of a seizure, which Falzon admitted could be a "terminal event[.]" Counsel alternatively argued that defendant recklessly caused DeBlasi's death because defendant and DeBlasi were "wrestling and boxing and tussling" and their conduct went "on too long[.]"
In this appeal, defendant raises the following issues for our consideration:
THE DEFENDANT WAS DENIED A FAIR TRIAL BECAUSE THE COURT FAILED TO CONTROL THE PROCEEDINGS AS DEFENSE COUNSEL AND THE ASSISTANT PROSECUTOR VENTED THEIR PERSONAL ANIMOSIT[IES] TOWARD EACH OTHER BEFORE THE JURY. (Not Raised Below).
THE COURT ERRED IN FAILING TO HAVE THE DEFENDANT EVALUATED FOR COMPETENCY TO STAND TRIAL IN VIOLATION OF THE RIGHT TO DUE PROCESS.
THE PROSECUTOR'S SUMMATION WAS REPLETE WITH IMPROPER COMMENTS AND SO FAR EXCEED THE BOUNDS OF PROPRIETY THAT THE DEFENDANT WAS DENIED A FAIR TRIAL. (Not Raised Below).
THE DEFENDANT WAS SENTENCED TO A MANIFESTLY EXCESSIVE TERM OF LIFE WITH A 85% PAROLE BAR UNDER NERA. THE SENTENCE MUST BE REDUCED.
We turn first to defendant's contention, raised for the first time on appeal, that the trial court failed to control the hostile exchanges between the assistant prosecutor and defense counsel, some of which took place before the jury. Defendant contends that these "continuous displays of unprofessional conduct" deprived him of a fair trial. We disagree.
The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, paragraph 10 of the New Jersey Constitution "ensure that 'everyone charged with [a] crime has an absolute constitutional right to a fair trial in an atmosphere of judicial calm, before an impartial judge and an unprejudiced jury.'" State v. Tyler, 176 N.J. 171, 181 (2003) (quoting State v. Marchand, 31 N.J. 223, 232 (1959)). "Trial judges in their gatekeeping role have a duty 'to take all appropriate measures to ensure the fair and proper administration of a criminal trial[.]'" Ibid. (quoting State v. Williams, 93 N.J. 39, 62 (1983)).
Furthermore, "[s]upervision and control of all trials are in the hands of the judge. It is essential to the administration of justice that [the judge] be acutely responsive to the task." State v. Thornton, 38 N.J. 380, 400 (1962), cert. denied, 374 U.S. 816, 83 S. Ct. 1710, 10 L. Ed. 2d 1039 (1963). "[T]rial judges possess broad discretion to intervene in a criminal trial where necessary." State v. O'Brien, 200 N.J. 520, 534 (2009).
Here, defendant focuses on the dispute between defense counsel and the assistant prosecutor concerning a videotaped statement that defendant gave Aversano. At the assistant prosecutor's request, the court barred the defense from admitting the tape into evidence. Thereafter, disputes arose between the attorneys when defense counsel alluded to the interrogation during her cross-examination of Aversano and the assistant prosecutor's questioning of Aversano on re-direct.
The trial court excused the jury and told the attorneys that it planned to hold both of them in contempt for their failure to abide by its rulings. The court stated that it had to take immediate action to ensure that the proceedings do not "get out of control." The court instructed counsel to "reflect" on its comments and "think of the way things have gone in this case."
The following day, the court addressed the issue again. The court noted that, during the videotaped proceedings on the previous day, there had been twenty-eight objections in thirty-nine minutes. The court indicated that it would defer any contempt proceedings until after the trial.
When the trial resumed, disputes arose between the assistant prosecutor and defense counsel over objections that defense counsel made during Carroway's testimony. In the last two days of the trial, the disputes between the attorneys arose from time to time, and the trial court at one point told the attorneys to stop what the court considered to be unprofessional conduct.
We note that, despite the court's threat to hold both attorneys in contempt, the court never pursued the matter and did not again threaten to sanction the attorneys. Moreover, defendant never sought a mistrial on the ground that the disputes between the attorneys had denied him a fair trial.
The record indicates that, at times, defense counsel and the assistant prosecutor made inappropriate remarks that warranted the court's admonitions and warnings. We are not convinced, however, that the remarks were so egregious as to deny defendant of his right to a fair trial. We therefore conclude that the court did not err by failing to declare a mistrial sua sponte.
We next consider defendant's argument that the trial court erred by failing to conduct a hearing on defendant's competency after he engaged in certain disruptive behavior during the trial.
The record shows that early in the trial, when the assistant prosecutor was questioning Holliday, the court excused the jury and instructed defendant to stop talking during the trial proceedings. Before the jury was excused for the day, defendant asked for another lawyer. When the proceedings resumed, the court entertained argument by the attorneys concerning the admissibility of certain photos. The court instructed defendant to keep his voice down when he was speaking with his attorney. Defendant renewed his request for a new lawyer, which the court denied.
The court then informed defendant that it had the authority to remove him from the courtroom if he engaged in disruptive conduct. Defendant continued to interrupt the court. He stated that there was a camera in his cell and a videotape would exonerate him. The judge ordered defendant's removal from the courtroom. The court moved the trial to another courtroom, and the proceedings were transmitted live to defendant in a separate holding cell.
Later, the court stated that on the following day, it would consider whether defendant should return to the courtroom and his request for a new attorney. The assistant prosecutor noted that defendant had not raised any psychiatric defense and, based on his own observations, he believed that defendant's conduct "is just an act[.]" Defense counsel assured the court that defendant was competent to proceed with the trial.
The next day, defense counsel requested that the court determine whether defendant wished to proceed pro se. The court engaged in a lengthy colloquy with defendant, who stated that a videotape of his cell would prove his innocence. Defendant also asserted that his attorney was working with the prosecutor. The court interpreted defendant's remark as a complaint about the quality of the representation provided to him, rather than a request for a new attorney.
Defense counsel then suggested that defendant was not competent to stand trial and assist in his defense. The court and defendant engaged in the following exchange:
THE COURT: Can you assist her? Can you assist her in your defense? Can you help her?
DEFENDANT: I could help her but basically she wasn't looking to help. Basically my little fight game is to attack. If I'm talking, if I'm speaking to [defense counsel] and I'm telling her what the prosecutor [is] trying to do and she [is] trying to step off and trying to leave and I'm trying to show her proof, everything that is right there I know this whole fight game and we can kill this fight game in one day and take care of everything if I was on the case.
THE COURT: Now listen to this, if you would let [defense counsel] do her job, let the witnesses answer the questions first then I'll give you a chance to talk to her before she asks questions.
THE COURT: Would you promise to be quiet? Yes?
DEFENDANT: Yeah, but basically, your Honor, it is not on point, it is not on point like when you stand up and, you know, you don't let me speak and, you know, which way to stand and how to walk and everything like that. There is not a point like that, it is not accurate like that the way we speak, the way we move, the way we talk. Now, the prosecutor speaking problem my lawyer supposed to attack everything that he's talking about and keep everything on me protected and I --
THE COURT: She has been doing that. DEFENDANT: I already know from me listening what we got on radios and things like that but we live in a real world. I want to see who did what and everything.
THE COURT: She said you didn't do it. DEFENDANT: I know.
THE COURT: She is saying that you were trying to help him.
DEFENDANT: That's right.
THE COURT: He is saying you did it. But she is saying, no, you didn't do it. That is what she told the jury.
DEFENDANT: Yes, sir.
THE COURT: And that is what she is doing with the witnesses trying to show that it wasn't you. We haven't finished yet. We're still in the middle of things but you haven't acted right and I need you to act right because if you can't act right then I [have] got to put you in that other room.
The court asked defendant whether he would act appropriately and whether he would prefer to remain in the holding cell. Defendant was generally unresponsive to the court's questions. He said that the victim's mother was reading his mind. Defendant counsel moved for a mistrial or an adjournment to assess defendant's competency to proceed with the trial.
The court then questioned defendant to assess his mental condition. In response to those questions, defendant stated, among other things, that he was in Middlesex County. Defendant said that he knew that he was charged with first-degree murder and was facing thirty years of incarceration. He said that he had not "done anything" but others had "read [his] whole entire mind." Defense counsel interjected that defendant believed that "people" were "reading his mind."
In response to further questioning, defendant provided the court with the names of his parents. Defendant said his grandparents had been in law enforcement. He stated that they worked for the President. He also said that his grandfather had been a sheriff's officer in Washington, D.C. Defendant said that he lived in Trenton but, as a baby, lived in Brooklyn, New York.
After hearing the argument of counsel, the court denied defendant's motion for a mistrial. The court also ruled that there was no need for a competency hearing because defendant had not made a "bona fide" showing that there was a genuine issue as to his competency. The court found that defendant was endeavoring to "thwart the administration of justice[.]"
The court noted that defense counsel had worked many hours with defendant and had no prior indication that defendant was not competent to stand trial. The court also noted that prior evaluations of defendant had revealed that there was no issue of his competency or diminished capacity, and there was nothing in the record to indicate that defendant had any previous psychiatric problems.
The following day, defense counsel renewed her motion for a competency hearing. The court denied the motion. Counsel informed the court that the trial could proceed with defendant watching from the holding cell. The trial proceeded in that manner.
However, on the next trial date, defendant was allowed to remain in the courtroom during the trial but the court removed him again after he engaged in certain verbal outbursts. The following day, the court again allowed defendant to remain in the courtroom but removed him after he engaged in disruptive behavior.
On the ensuing trial days, defendant watched the trial proceedings from the holding cell. On the last day of the trial, defendant refused to submit to a routine strip frisk, which resulted in the issuance by the court of an order authorizing the corrections officers to remove defendant from his cell physically. During this process, defendant threatened to spit and throw bodily fluids at the officers. When the officers were leading defendant into the holding cell at the courthouse, he bit an officer on the arm.
A competency hearing must be held when there is evidence that raises a bona fide doubt as to a defendant's competency. State v. Purnell, 394 N.J. Super. 28, 47 (App. Div. 2007). "'There are . . . no fixed or immutable signs which invariably indicate the need for further inquiry to determine [a defendant's] fitness to proceed.'" State v. Lambert, 275 N.J. Super. 125, 129 (App. Div. 1994) (quoting Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 180, 95 S. Ct. 896, 908, 43 L. Ed. 2d 103, 118 (1975)).
However, evidence that a defendant engaged in irrational behavior, his demeanor during the trial and prior medical opinions on the competence are relevant factors to be considered. Ibid. (citing Drope, supra, 420 U.S. at 180, 95 S. Ct. at 908, 43 L. Ed. 2d at 118). Moreover, a lawyer's representation concerning the competence of his client is a factor that the court may consider. State v. Cecil, 260 N.J. Super. 475, 481 (App. Div. 1992), certif. denied, 133 N.J. 431 (1993).
Here, the trial court found that defendant had not established a bona fide doubt as to his competency to stand trial. The court noted that prior evaluations did not raise any issue as to defendant's competency. The court also noted that defendant's attorney worked with him in preparation for the trial and did not express any concerns about his competency. Indeed, during the trial, defense counsel initially told the court that defendant was competent to proceed.
The court also considered defendant's demeanor during the trial. The record indicates that defendant repeatedly engaged in disruptive conduct, which at times required his removal from the courtroom. The record also indicates that defendant made certain seemingly irrational and bizarre statements. The court found, however, from its own observations, that defendant was engaging in conduct designed to thwart the administration of justice.
The trial court's findings are binding on appeal because they are supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record. State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 474 (1999). Deference to the court's findings is particularly appropriate here because the findings were "substantially influenced" by the court's ability to hear defendant and observe his demeaner, and its "'feel'" of the case, "which a reviewing court cannot enjoy." State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 161 (1964).
Next, defendant argues that the assistant prosecutor made certain inappropriate comments in his summation which deprived him of his right to a fair trial.
Defendant argues that the assistant prosecutor improperly attacked the integrity and conduct of defense counsel. He asserts that the assistant prosecutor improperly stated that the defense had advanced a "so-called seizure defense" that had no support in the record. Defendant also claims that the assistant prosecutor improperly criticized defense counsel for pursuing alternative theories, which defendant claims was tantamount to shifting the burden of proof to defendant.
In addition, defendant says that the assistant prosecutor wrongfully "lambasted" defense counsel for asserting that defendant's conduct could be considered reckless. He contends that the assistant prosecutor accused his attorney of "assassinating" the victim's character "with pejorative, unproven and irrelevant aspersions." He further contends that the assistant prosecutor, in illustrating the difference between murder and aggravated manslaughter, incorrectly analyzed and misstated the law because it ignored the doctrine of transferred intent.
"Prosecutors are expected to make a vigorous and forceful closing argument to the jury . . . and are afforded considerable leeway in that endeavor[.]" State v. Nelson, 173 N.J. 417, 461 (2002) (internal citations omitted). Even so, "a 'prosecutor must refrain from improper methods that result in wrongful conviction, and is obligated to use legitimate means to bring about a just conviction.'" Ibid. (quoting State v. Smith, 167 N.J. 158, 177 (2001)). To justify reversal of a conviction, "'the prosecutor's conduct must have been clearly and unmistakably improper, and must have substantially prejudiced [the] defendant's fundamental right to have a jury fairly evaluate the merits of his [or her] defense.'" Ibid. (quoting State v. Papasavvas, 163 N.J. 565, 625 (2000)).
In determining whether a prosecutor's remarks are so egregious as to require reversal of a conviction, we consider whether defense counsel made a timely objection to the remarks, whether the remarks were withdrawn promptly and whether the court struck the comments and ordered the jury to disregard them. Smith, supra, 167 N.J. at 182. When no such objection is lodged, "the remarks will not be deemed prejudicial." State v. Timmendequas, 161 N.J. 515, 576 (1999), cert. denied, 534 U.S. 858, 122 S. Ct. 136, 151 L. Ed. 2d 89 (2001).
Here, defense counsel did not object to the assistant prosecutor's remarks, thereby indicating that counsel did not view the remarks as prejudicial. Moreover, we are satisfied that the assistant prosecutor's remarks were a proper response to defense counsel's closing, in which she attacked the prosecution; said that the State improperly relied upon Carroway's testimony because he was "a professional criminal"; stated that the assistant prosecutor had only given the medical examiner "selective information"; stated that DeBlasi was a violent criminal; and asserted that it was "ridiculous" to refer to DeBlasi as a "victim." Furthermore, the assistant prosecutor did not directly disparage defense counsel but instead challenged the factual basis for the arguments advanced by counsel. In our view, the prosecutor's remarks were fair comment on the evidence and did not shift the burden of proof to defendant.
We also reject defendant's claim that the jury was led astray by a misstatement of the law by the assistant prosecutor. The assistant prosecutor had provided the jury with an example to illustrate the difference between knowing and purposeful murder and reckless manslaughter. The assistant prosecutor told the jury, however, that the court would be providing them with the relevant legal principles in its instructions. If there was any legal error in the example, it was cured by the court's charge.
Finally, defendant argues that his sentence is excessive. Again, we disagree.
Here, the trial court found aggravating factors under N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(a)(3) (risk that defendant will commit another offense); N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(a)(6) (extent of defendant's prior criminal record and the seriousness of the offenses of which he has been convicted); and N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(a)(9) (need to deter defendant and others from violating the law). The court found no mitigating factors. As stated previously, the court sentenced defendant to life imprisonment, with a period of parole ineligibility as prescribed by NERA.
We are satisfied that the sentence imposed here is not manifestly excessive or unduly punitive, does not represent an abuse of the judge's sentencing discretion, and does not shock the judicial conscience. State v. O'Donnell, 117 N.J. 210, 215-16 (1989); State v. Roth, 95 N.J. 334, 363-65 (1984).
Defendant asserts, however, that the judgment of conviction erroneously indicates that the trial court found an aggravating factor under N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(a)(1) (nature and circumstances of the offense). We agree. We remand for entry of a corrected judgment of conviction to delete the erroneous reference to that aggravating factor.
Defendant's conviction and sentence are affirmed. The matter is remanded to the trial court for entry of a corrected judgment of conviction.
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