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State of New Jersey v. Robert Handy

August 4, 2011


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Passaic County, Indictment No. 04-04-0567.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sabatino, J.A.D.



Argued March 7, 2011

Before Judges Lisa, Sabatino, and Alvarez.

The opinion of the court was delivered by SABATINO, J.A.D.

This unusual case involves a defendant who, at a bench trial, was found not guilty of murder and other related offenses by reason of insanity, but who sought to have a jury trial to seek acquittal on a theory of self-defense. In rejecting defendant's motion to be tried first on his self-defense claim and instead proceeding solely with the insanity issue, the trial court was guided by our opinion in State v. Khan, 175 N.J. Super. 72 (App. Div. 1980), which prescribes a bifurcated procedure that gives primacy to the adjudication of an insanity defense.

For the reasons stated in this opinion, we decline to adhere to the bifurcation sequence set forth in Khan. We do so because Khan conflicts with several aspects of our State's Criminal Code; Khan relied upon District of Columbia case law that is no longer valid; and Khan is contrary to the approach of other states that have addressed the question. We instead hold that a defendant who wishes to present a substantive defense based upon at least some evidence, or who otherwise wishes to put the State to its burden of proving the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt, should not be required to first submit to a trial restricted to the issue of insanity. Such an insanity trial, which might result in the defendant's indefinite commitment in a mental institution, should not have to proceed first.

Because, under the flawed mandate of Khan, defendant was not afforded the opportunity to present his claims of self-defense to a jury, we remand for further proceedings to provide that opportunity, on certain terms and conditions detailed in this opinion. We also refer the many issues of procedural design and potential rulemaking implicated by this case for prospective consideration by the Supreme Court's Committee on Criminal Practice.


The procedural history of this case is lengthy and complicated. Moreover, the operative facts are substantially disputed and unresolved, given the absence of a trial on the merits. With those constraints in mind, we describe what presently appears in the record, recognizing that additional relevant facts may be developed on remand.

The Fatal Stabbing and the Events That Preceded It.

This case arises out of the fatal stabbing of Arthur Cooper, defendant Robert Handy's uncle, on January 13, 2004. They lived together in a residence*fn1 in Paterson with defendant's grandmother, Pauline Cooper, and another relative, Mary Clay.

Defendant has long-standing mental health problems, including several hospitalizations for psychiatric illness. Four months prior to the stabbing, defendant was encountered by police officers in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where he had walked all the way from Paterson. He was sitting on a bench, acting in what the officers perceived to be a bizarre manner. Defendant reportedly told the officers that all of his bones were broken and that he could not walk. Based on defendant's aberrant behavior, he was admitted to a psychiatric program at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center ("St. Luke's") in New York City.

The physicians at St. Luke's determined that defendant was suffering from increased symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. After defendant's condition stabilized, St. Luke's discharged him in early October 2003, with instructions to continue treatment and take his medication. Defendant returned to live in the family residence in Paterson.

There were no eyewitnesses to the stabbing that took place at the residence three months later on January 13, 2004. It is undisputed that defendant stabbed his uncle once, killing him. Defendant contends, however, that his uncle was high on cocaine at the time, that his uncle had attacked him with a metal pipe, and that he had used the knife only in self-defense. The State disputes that the uncle attacked defendant, contending that defendant's claim of self-defense is delusional and inconsistent with the circumstantial evidence.

Regardless of the impetus for the parties' fatal encounter, it is undisputed that several Paterson police officers came to the residence early that afternoon. Neighbors had apparently called the police because they had heard the uncle yelling for help and had seen him outside the residence bleeding. The police found the uncle lying in blood, approximately twenty-four-and-a-half feet from the front door of the dwelling, on a grassy patch off the front walkway. There was blood on the driveway, on the grass, and on the cement landing by the house. The uncle was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead upon arrival.

According to the testimony of Sergeant Jose Fermin, one of the officers who responded to the scene, the front door of the residence was open. The residence, as Fermin described it, had "a large amount" of blood. Blood was smeared on the front door handle and frame. Fermin noted that a couch in the first room inside was "really soiled with blood."

The police discovered a metal pipe with blood on it, partly hidden underneath the couch. The pipe, which was approximately three or four feet long, had been painted green and marked with the words "King Reveal." The uncle had the same words tattooed on his body.

Family members who thereafter arrived at the scene identified the uncle and defendant from photographs in the residence. At about 3:00 p.m., while the police were still there, defendant returned to the residence, pushing a laundry cart.

Detective Agapito Guzman, one of the other responding officers, testified that defendant "looked normal" and that defendant had no difficulty in providing his biographical information or in relating what had happened. Other family members had informed Detective Guzman of defendant's prior mental problems but, "just looking at him," Guzman observed no indication of mental instability. One of the relatives who lived with defendant later told the police that a few days before the stabbing incident, defendant had been "walking throughout the residence . . . in a threatening manner with a red-handled knife."

Detective Guzman asked defendant when he last saw his uncle. According to Guzman, defendant "told me that prior to him leaving to do his laundry [his uncle] hit him with [a] pipe. He immediately turned around and cut him, stabbed him."

At that point, Detective Guzman stopped the discussion. Defendant was informed of his Miranda*fn2 rights, and he was arrested. The police recovered a red folding knife from his pocket, as well as a substantial amount of cash, $5400, apparently from a Social Security check.

According to the autopsy report, the uncle died from one stab wound to the left side of his chest that penetrated his rib, lung, and heart. Cocaine was found in his blood and liver. The parties stipulated that, given the rate of metabolization, the amount of cocaine found in the uncle's body indicated "recent use."

Defendant's Statement to the Police and the Police Investigation.

Defendant was interviewed at the police station at approximately 4:00 p.m. that day. Sergeant Fermin recalled that defendant had no apparent difficulty understanding his Miranda rights, which he waived. Fermin observed nothing during the interview to corroborate the mental health issues reported by defendant's family members. While providing background information, defendant indicated that he took medication for "anxiety," but added that he had taken no medication that day.

During the course of his police interview, defendant repeatedly maintained that he had stabbed his uncle in self-defense. He gave the following statements, which were later transcribed and read aloud in court by the prosecutor and Detective Fermin:

Q. Do you know where you are at the present time and the reason you are here?

A. At the complex, because I defended myself with a weapon.

Q. In your own words, can you tell me what knowledge you have concerning this incident? . . . .

A. I don't remember the time, but I think it was sometime before the afternoon. I was awakened by Arthur, he was banging on my bedroom door. He then asked me did I go into his room and cut the fan off, which he had in his room, I told him no, that Ma, (Pauline Cooper) had cut it off. He started to yell and argue with me, so I went to the bathroom took a shower and was getting ready to go and do my laundry. The whole time I was doing this he kept yelling and fussing.

While I was downstairs getting ready to leave he came downstairs like he wanted to fight me. I told him I was going to do laundry, whatever you want to do is on you. I had gone outside the house, and he came behind me. When I turned around he had a metal pipe in his hands, holding it like if it was a baseball bat. He was saying something and gritting his teeth, I kept telling him to leave me alone over and over again. Then he swung the pipe at my head and I blocked it with my left arm, which broke my wristwatch. He kept swinging at me and I kept moving behind a tree to avoid him from hitting me, then I cut him. When I cut him he backed up, it seems that he wanted to come forward but he went into the house, I gues[s]. He turned around and I left to do my laundry.

Q. Have you ever had any problems with Arthur?

A. Yeah, well I didn't have problems he had problems with me.

Q. What types of problems did he have with you?

A. He just don't like me, when we were younger we were in the hospital in East Orange. He hit me on the face with a squeegee because I wouldn't have sex with him. That's how I got the scar on my lip. After that happened he put a shotgun to my face and threaten[ed] me so that I would not say anything about what happened, it belonged to his father who was a Vet. Then in 2000 I was at St. Joseph's hospital in the Psychiatric unit[,] he was among one of the guys who sexually assaulted me and raped me.

Q. Robert[,] you stated that Arthur followed you after you walked out of the apartment and that when you turn[ed] and saw that it was him you hid behind a tree. Where is the [t]ree that you talk about in your statement?

A. I think i[t']s in front of 118 Pearl Street, it's got a "U" in gold glued on with sparkles.

Q. Where did he hit you?

A. He hit me once by my wrist and broke my watch band.

Q. Did you know that what you did was wrong?

A. I felt I was defending myself. If someone comes at you with a weapon how could that be wrong.

Q. Did you understand what you were doing when you stabbed him?

A. I was defending myself. . . . .

Q. Do you know why Arthur came after you with the pipe?

A. No[,] but he was drinking. I saw him drinking a can of Budw[e]iser when I went to take my shower. He probably was smoking crack, I smelled it.

[Emphasis added.]

Defendant described the pipe and drew a sketch of it for the officers. He told the police that, after the stabbing, he cleaned the knife in water from a puddle. Then he went to the laundromat to wash his clothes, which he claimed had no blood on them. He said that he carried a knife everywhere he went, keeping it in his pocket in case he had to defend himself. Defendant further stated that he had stabbed his uncle once before, when he thought his uncle "was going to get a gun."

Detective Fermin observed that the only damage to defendant's watch was a broken hinge that connected the band. Fermin saw no physical injuries on defendant and, specifically, none to his left wrist area.

The police located the tree near the residence that defendant had described. According to Detective Fermin, it had "a U[-shape] with glitter shiny stuff on it and some chunks of the bark that had been, looked like it had been struck by something." The missing chunks were on the ground. The tree was described by Fermin as being sixty-nine feet from the residence, although defendant contests that measurement because it was not the straightest distance to the dwelling.

As further support for the claim of self-defense, defendant's submissions indicate that the uncle had a lengthy criminal history, much of it involving drugs, including several convictions. In particular, a police report in defendant's appendix reflects that the uncle was arrested on January 6, 2004, a week before the stabbing, for selling crack cocaine. The defense contends that this history of drug involvement and criminal conduct bolsters defendant's claim that the uncle initiated the attack.*fn3

On January 18, 2004, five days after he stabbed his uncle, defendant was interviewed at the Passaic County Jail by a licensed psychologist, Peter D. Paul, Ph.D. Dr. Paul diagnosed defendant as having paranoid schizophrenia. However, Dr. Paul perceived that: "[defendant's] symptoms [did] not seem to impair his ability to think rationally about his legal case"; he was competent to stand trial; and that he would not present a danger to himself or anyone else if released. Defendant remained in the jail at that point, pending the anticipated criminal proceedings arising from the stabbing.

In April 2004, a Passaic County grand jury indicted defendant and charged him with the purposeful or knowing murder of Arthur Cooper, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(1) or (2) (count one); unlawful possession of a knife under circumstances not manifestly appropriate for its use, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5d (count two); and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4d (count three). Defendant pled not guilty to these charges, rejecting the State's repeated overtures to agree to a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.

Meanwhile, Dr. Paul recommended that defendant be transferred from jail to the Ann Klein Forensic Center ("Ann Klein"), where defendant was admitted in April 2005. Defendant was forcibly medicated while at Ann Klein and his mental status improved.

The Competency Evaluations and Proceedings.

In December 2005, Evan Feibusch, M.D., a clinical psychiatrist at Ann Klein, found defendant competent to stand trial. Dr. Feibusch recommended that defendant be returned to the jail and that he continue with his medication.

On a date that is unclear from the record supplied to us,*fn4

the trial court apparently found, in its initial review of the matter, that defendant had waived his right to assert an insanity defense. However, that initial finding was revisited when a different judge assumed responsibility for the case. That second judge ordered a re-evaluation of defendant's competency to stand trial and also his capacity to waive an insanity defense.

At that point, defendant was evaluated by Susan Chung, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Ann Klein, whom the court had ordered to evaluate defendant's competency. Defendant was also examined by Roger M. Harris, M.D., a private forensic psychiatrist retained by his counsel. Dr. Chung and Dr. Harris reached differing conclusions on the subject. The court considered their respective opinions at competency hearings held in February 2008 and October 2008.

According to Dr. Chung, defendant has suffered from paranoid delusions. The delusions included perceptions that bats were entering his ears and were about to kill him; that his bones were broken when they were not; that during his twenty-four-hour stay at a hospital he was beaten, tortured, electrocuted, and sexually assaulted by hundreds of individuals; and that, while at Ann Klein, he had a child with one of the staff members. At times, defendant believed that his attorney and a judge who had previously presided over his case were among the persons that had sexually assaulted him at the hospital.

Despite defendant's delusions, Dr. Chung concluded that he was competent to stand trial. Dr. Chung confirmed that she had considered the statutory requirements under N.J.S.A. 2C:4-4, and that defendant met all of the criteria. She noted that defendant was oriented to person, place, date, and time, and that he possessed a factual and rational understanding of the legal process and understood the different roles of the judge, the public defender, and the prosecutor. In her view, he understood the charges against him and showed "that he's able to engage in a discussion of various legal options with his attorney." In addition, Dr. Chung noted that defendant's attitude towards his attorney had improved. She further noted that defendant "[m]ost likely" would continue to be competent to stand trial, as long as he was compliant with his medications.

Defendant's own expert, Dr. Harris, disagreed. In Dr. Harris's opinion, until defendant was freed from his delusions, he would be incompetent to stand trial. According to Dr. Harris, defendant's delusions were "the most problematic" symptom for his anti-psychotic medication to address. Given the longstanding nature of those delusions, Dr. Harris concluded that the prognosis was "poor" that defendant would ever be free of them.

Dr. Harris specifically disagreed with Dr. Chung's conclusion that defendant no longer had any delusions towards his attorney. According to Dr. Harris, although defendant "very much" understood his attorney's role, and knew that the attorney was urging the defense he sought, he still linked her to "some delusional idea that [she was] present in 2000 at [the hospital] and that [she] passively participated in his being . . . assaulted and raped[.]"

Dr. Harris did acknowledge that it was "entirely possible" that defendant's claim that he had acted in self-defense was "completely truthful." In Dr. Harris's discussions with defendant, "not only did [defendant] seem to understand" the legal ramifications of his self-defense claim, but "he told a coherent story about self-defense." Dr. Harris noted that defendant understood that "self-defense means an acquittal[.]" Defendant "was shocked that he was arrested," because he "thought the defense is so strong that he wouldn't even be charged."

The Competency Ruling and The Bifurcation Ordered Pursuant to Khan.

At oral argument in the trial court in October 2008, the prosecutor argued that defendant was competent to stand trial. However, the prosecutor further asserted that "based on the findings that he really does not necessarily understand the complexities of his mental health condition, and probably never will, . . . he [was not] competent to waive a psychiatric defense."

Citing to our opinion in Khan, supra, 175 N.J. Super. at 73, the prosecutor argued that because issues of insanity and self-defense were both present, the insanity issues must be tried first, despite defense counsel's opposition to that sequencing. The prosecutor acknowledged that defense counsel had made a "very effective argument that it [Khan] . . . may not be the most practical sense of what the law should be[.]" Nevertheless, the prosecutor asserted that the trial court was bound to follow Khan and try the insanity issue first.

The prosecutor noted that "the fact finder could have significant difficulties when assessing the [defendant's] ability to act purposely, knowingly, or [recklessly] based upon the delusional psychiatric condition that unfortunately [defendant] has, and has had, and will have." The prosecutor argued that bifurcating the trial and adjudicating the ...

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