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State of New Jersey v. Jesse Elwood Watkins A/K/A Jesse Wakins

November 17, 2011

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
JESSE ELWOOD WATKINS A/K/A JESSE WAKINS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Cape May County, Indictment No. 07-04-0240.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted September 12, 2011

Before Judges A.A. Rodriguez and Ashrafi.

Nineteen years after the disappearance of his cousin Craig White, defendant Jesse Watkins was tried before a jury and convicted of murdering him. He appeals, arguing that his trial was unfair because: (1) venue should have been transferred out of Cape May County; (2) the judge improperly influenced the jury's deliberations by summarizing witness testimony in the final jury charge; (3) he was denied the right to cross-examine a witness effectively; and (4) the jury's guilty verdict was against the weight of the evidence. Having fully reviewed the record and considered defendant's arguments, we now affirm the conviction.

Defendant was indicted in 2007 on a single charge of murder in connection with the disappearance in February 1990 of his eighteen-year-old cousin. At defendant's trial in 2009, the State alleged that defendant killed White and disposed of his body because White had a sexual relationship with defendant's girlfriend, Dawn Garrison. White's body was never found, nor was any other physical evidence relating to his disappearance.

Rather, the prosecution presented testimony from family and friends and emphasized that defendant was the last person seen with White before his disappearance and that in later years he confessed the murder to a former girlfriend and his former wife. The prosecution also presented evidence of defendant's motive, his animosity toward White, his inconsistent statements and behavior shortly after the disappearance, his leaving New Jersey within days of White's disappearance, and his staying away for seventeen years until he was arrested and charged with the murder. To refute the State's case, defendant presented testimony that White was seen alive in the days immediately after he reportedly went missing in February 1990. The defense suggested that White fled Cape May County and remained a fugitive because he was facing a pending indictment in New Jersey for robbery and selling drugs.

On appeal of his conviction, defendant raises the following points of error:

POINT I

JESSE WATKINS WAS DENIED HIS SIXTH AMENDMENT RIGHT TO A FAIR AND IMPARTIAL JURY.

A. THE TRIAL COURT IMPROPERLY

INFLUENCED JURY DELIBERATIONS

BY PROVIDING THE JURY NOTES

GENERATED BY THE JUDGE.

B. THE TRIAL COURT IMPROPERLY

DENIED WATKINS' MOTION FOR A

CHANGE OF VENUE.

POINT II

THE JURY'S VERDICT OF GUILTY MUST BE REVERSED BECAUSE THE VERDICT WAS AGAINST THE WEIGHT OF THE EVIDENCE.

POINT III

APPELLANT WAS DENIED HIS RIGHT TO DUE PROCESS BY THE TRIAL COURT'S LIMITATION OF WATKINS' ABILITY TO CROSS EXAMINE A STATE'S WITNESS.

To assess these arguments, we review in detail the evidence presented at the trial.

I.

In the 1980s, defendant was in his late twenties and lived with Dawn Garrison in Whitesboro. He had a good relationship with his cousin Craig White. In July 1989, Garrison began a sexual relationship with White, then eighteen years old. White told several friends and relatives about his relationship with Garrison. Garrison testified at trial and admitted she had a sexual relationship with White in the summer of 1989.

In October 1989, defendant, White, and defendant's brother, George Watkins, traveled to California to sell T-shirts at the World Series. When they returned to New Jersey, White's aunt, Kay White, and his uncle, Vincent White, noticed bruises on his face. White told them he had gotten into a fight with defendant. After the trip to California, Kay White and others observed a strained relationship between defendant and Craig White "like there was some animosity between the two of them."

According to Dawn Garrison, it was in the weeks after the trip to California that defendant first confronted her about having a relationship with White. She initially denied the accusation. In November 1989, however, defendant presented her with an engagement ring and asked her to marry him. At that point, she confessed to defendant about her relationship with White. Defendant cried, and he remained emotionally upset for "about a month or so." He told Garrison that people in the neighborhood were talking about the affair.

On January 19, 1990, defendant and his friend, Peter Stein, went out for drinks to celebrate defendant's birthday. Defendant said to Stein that Garrison had told him White raped her, but defendant had doubts about her story because he continued to see them together. Stein told defendant he thought Garrison was lying and "that they were more likely having an affair."

In February 1990, defendant approached Kay White in the parking lot of the Whitesboro Community Center. Defendant was "very upset" and "ranting and raving" about how "he tr[ied] to be a friend to Craig and help Craig [but Craig] did everything he could to ruin his life." After this incident, Kay White advised Craig White to stay away from defendant because "she felt like [defendant] would do something to him cause he was just so angry."

On another occasion during the winter of 1989-1990, Craig White's mother, Lee White, went to defendant's house looking for her son. According to Lee White, defendant "just started ranting and raving about Craig and -- and Dawn and their affair -- and -- and where they slept together and how many times . . . and he just went on and on and on, you know, about Dawn and Craig." He was "just out of control. Outrageous. Just -- just getting louder and louder as he spoke about Craig and Dawn. He was extremely upset."

Family members recalled an incident four years earlier when defendant had reacted violently to information about Garrison's relationships with other men. In September 1985, defendant was playing basketball at the Whitesboro Recreation Center with a group of men, including his cousins Harold and Vincent Watkins and his brother Donald Watkins. Harold Watkins told defendant that he and other men had previously engaged in sexual activity with Garrison. Defendant "took offense" and the incident escalated into a fight, defendant throwing the first punch. Defendant left the area and returned with a gun, threatening to kill Harold Watkins. Donald Watkins, stepped between them and took the gun from defendant. At the urging of family members, Harold Watkins reported the incident to police. The police searched defendant's home and found a nine millimeter handgun and a replica MP-40 machine gun.

After the California trip in 1989, defendant told his cousin Vincent Watkins "he was going to get Craig." Vincent Watkins advised his nephew Craig White to stay away from defendant. He assumed that White knew defendant was angry at him after the California trip.

On an unknown date, while fishing, defendant asked his friend James Easley what he would do if he wanted to get rid of a dead body. Easley told him to give the body "cement shoes" and mentioned a "suck hole" that his dog had fallen into.*fn1

In February 1990, Craig White was living at a home in Whitesboro with his cousin, Anthony White, and other family members. He had a one-year-old son that he regularly took care of while the child's mother, Meretha Green, was at work. Also, Craig White had recently been indicted on charges of conspiracy, robbery, and distribution of a controlled dangerous substance. The charges arose out of an undercover investigation in which White "was one of the street individuals" selling drugs to undercover agents.

On February 23, 1990, defendant stopped in the street next to White and his cousin Ty White. Defendant asked Craig White "to go into the woods with him to cut poles" for a building project. White told Ty White and his other cousin, Anthony White, that he did not want to go with defendant.

At approximately 4:30 p.m. on February 23rd, Anthony White took Craig White to his mother's house to drop off some money for his infant son. Before they left, White told his mother he was going to cut down trees with defendant in the woods that evening. Lee White "thought it was extremely odd" that they were going to cut down trees in the dark.

Anthony and Craig White then returned to their residence and were lifting weights along with Ty White. At approximately 5:00 p.m., defendant arrived in his pickup truck. He spoke briefly to Anthony and Ty White. Craig White went into his bedroom and changed into sweat pants and boots. He told Anthony and Ty White he would be right back, and then he left with defendant. The lights and music in his bedroom were left on, and jewelry and money were left on the dresser. In addition, White did not take any clothes or personal belongings.

Craig White has never been seen or heard from by family members and friends since the time he left his residence ...


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