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State of New Jersey v. Michael Bernard Relford

April 27, 2011


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Indictment No. 90-11-2634.

Per curiam.


Submitted April 5, 2011

Before Judges Payne and Baxter.

Defendant Michael Relford appeals from a March 17, 2010 Law Division order that denied his motion, filed seventeen years after his murder conviction, to require that a vial of his blood be tested for the presence of alcohol or drugs. We affirm.


On November 28, 1990, a Middlesex County grand jury charged defendant with the October 18, 1990 murder of a neighbor, Elizabeth Baynes. At trial,*fn1 the State produced testimony that Baynes was a close friend and neighbor of defendant's grandmother, whom the grandmother "loved like a daughter." The police were called to the victim's apartment by her screams of "please don't kill me, Michael." When the police entered the blood-splattered apartment, they found defendant hiding under some insulation in the attic that could be accessed only through a small trap door. The murder weapon, a knife, was found there with him.

Defendant's sole defense was intoxication. Defendant did not testify at trial, but provided a statement to police, in which he claimed that he had sniffed a large quantity of cocaine and heroin and had drunk heavily before going to the victim's apartment to have consensual sex with her, and to share additional cocaine. According to defendant, after they shared the cocaine, the victim became irrational and picked up a knife to attack him. He admitted he chased her and stabbed her at least once. Defendant presented three witnesses, Corey Nix, Shawana Bell, and his grandmother, who testified to defendant's alcohol and drug use in the hours preceding the murder. The State presented testimony describing defendant as lucid during the relevant timeframe. The State also presented testimony establishing that there was no cocaine in Baynes's system, and a search of the apartment failed to unearth the two vials of cocaine that defendant described himself and Baynes as having used. A third vial, found in defendant's sock, did not contain cocaine.

The jury returned a verdict finding defendant guilty of the murder.*fn2 Defendant was sentenced on July 2, 1992, to a term of life imprisonment with a thirty-year period of parole ineligibility.

Defendant appealed his conviction and sentence, raising two arguments that bore directly upon the intoxication defense that was the basis of his 2009 motion for the testing of his blood.*fn3

In particular, defendant argued trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance because he failed to call as witnesses five people who would have testified that they were with defendant in the hours before the murder and defendant was "high" from the combination of cocaine, "angel dust" and alcohol. We rejected the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, reasoning defendant had failed to establish that the additional witnesses would have provided testimony different from that already provided by Nix, Bell and defendant's grandmother on the same subject. State v. Relford, No. A-6276-91 (App. Div. 1993) (slip op. at 6-7). We also observed that defendant's intoxication defense was "flawed by the fact that he had the presence of mind to hide in the attic when he heard someone knocking on the door, and was responsive to the police when arrested, thus negating the 'prostration of faculties' needed for the [intoxication] defense." Id. at 7-8 (citation omitted).

The second issue raised on direct appeal that has a bearing on the intoxication defense that underlies defendant's 2009 motion was defendant's challenge to the trial judge's order denying his Miranda*fn4 motion. In affirming the denial of that motion, we observed that defendant's claim of intoxication at the time he provided his statement to police "was even weaker than his claim of intoxication at the time of the crime." Id. at 17. We noted the interrogating officer's testimony that defendant's "breath did not smell of alcohol" and that "it did not appear that defendant was under the influence of alcohol or drugs." Ibid. We affirmed the denial of defendant's Miranda motion. Id. at 18.

Defendant filed a petition for post-conviction relief (PCR) in October 1998, which the judge denied without a hearing on July 8, 1999, relying in part on the five-year time bar established by Rule 3:22-12(a). On May 8, 2000, we reversed the denial of defendant's petition, and remanded for a hearing on whether PCR counsel was ineffective in failing to file the PCR petition in a timely manner. State v. Relford, No. A-0566-99 (App. Div. May 8, 2000) (motion order).

On remand, the PCR judge, who was also the trial judge, considered defendant's claims on the merits, and rejected defendant's contention that trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance because he failed to present a diminished capacity defense. The judge observed that the mental defect defendant claimed should have been presented at trial, his "alcohol induced blackouts," was the "very argument [that] was made at trial[.]" The judge noted that although not framed as a mental disease or defect, defense counsel had argued at trial that defendant was intoxicated and thus could not form the requisite intent to commit the crime of murder. The judge reasoned that the jury had been charged on the intoxication defense, and the jury's guilty verdict showed that the jury found the defense unpersuasive. In rejecting defendant's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, the judge also reasoned that defendant's ...

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