On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Cumberland County, Indictment No. 07-02-0165.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Cuff, Sapp-Peterson and Simonelli.
Defendant Robert E. Vanaman pled guilty to passion-provocation manslaughter and tampering with evidence. The victim was his wife. He also agreed to waive his right to appeal and his right to pursue post-conviction relief. He is serving an eight-year term of imprisonment subject to the No Early Release Act*fn1 (NERA) for passion-provocation manslaughter and a consecutive one-year term for tampering. The following facts are derived from defendant's guilty plea, the pre-sentence report, and the extensive hearing at the time the judge imposed sentence.
Defendant was a fifteen-year veteran of the Millville Police Department and had been married to Barbara Vanaman for sixteen years. The couple had two sons, who were four and fourteen years old at the time of Barbara's death.
The course of the marriage was apparently contentious; Barbara had engaged in at least two extra-marital affairs before becoming involved in a third affair with a co-worker. By May 2006, Barbara had decided to leave defendant and her sons, and pursue a permanent relationship with her paramour.
On May 11, 2006, after defendant arrived home from work, Barbara informed defendant and her sons that she intended to leave and spend the summer in Ocean City. Defendant became angry because Barbara was leaving and apparently felt no reluctance over leaving defendant with all the responsibilities of caring for their sons. During an escalating argument, Barbara grabbed a kitchen knife and swung it at defendant. The two struggled at close quarters, but defendant freed himself and drew his service weapon.
Defendant warned Barbara that he would shoot, if she did not lower and relinquish the knife. She ignored the warning and continued to wield it in his direction. Defendant shot Barbara twice, but claimed the second shot was fired involuntarily because the gun lacked a safety.
Defendant called 9-1-1, but not before he scraped his arms with the kitchen knife that Barbara had been holding. A forensic expert later determined that defendant's wounds were likely self-inflicted. The records of the 9-1-1 dispatcher revealed defendant advised the dispatcher that he had been stabbed by his wife and shot her in self-defense. When the police responded to the scene, they observed the uniformed defendant, the unresponsive victim, and a broken kitchen knife on the floor.
After the return of a six-count indictment,*fn2 defendant pled guilty on March 30, 2009, to passion-provocation manslaughter, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4b(2), and tampering with physical evidence, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:28-6. As part of the plea agreement, defendant agreed to waive his right to appeal and to post-conviction relief. The judge elicited the following admissions from defendant:
THE COURT: Do you understand that by pleading guilty that [you are] waiving all these important rights [jury trial; confrontation of witnesses], and as well as making any applications before the Court, such as you're waiving your right of appeal and right of post conviction relief. You understand that, as well? [DEFENDANT]: Yes, your Honor.
THE COURT: These are all very, very important rights and you're waiving all these rights voluntarily? [DEFENDANT]: Yes, sir.
THE COURT: I know this is not easy to do, but I have to make sure that this is what you're doing of your own volition, and can I be convinced that ...