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NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION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 ...