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State of New Jersey v. Craig Szemple

December 16, 2011


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Warren County, Indictment No. 92-01-0024.

Per curiam.


Submitted November 30, 2011

Before Judges Lihotz and Waugh.

Defendant Craig Szemple appeals from an order dismissing his petition for post-conviction relief (PCR). We affirm. The events underlying the indictment in this case occurred in 1991. Szemple was also the subject of murder charges in Hudson County*fn1 and Morris County.*fn2

The events underlying those indictments took place in 1977 and 1975, respectively, although the indictments were not returned until 1991. The Hudson and Morris indictments were tried first, resulting in convictions. Szemple was initially represented by George Daggett in all three criminal cases. In 1995, Daggett sought and was granted leave to withdraw as counsel in this case. After the trial judge denied Szemple's request to represent himself, he obtained new counsel.

In 1997, Szemple moved unsuccessfully to have the charges against him dismissed on the grounds that he had been denied his right to a speedy trial. In 1998, he pled guilty to an amended charge of aggravated manslaughter, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4(a), as a lesser-included offense of capital murder. He also pled guilty to two counts of theft by deception and one count of attempted theft by deception. N.J.S.A. 2C:20-4; N.J.S.A. 2C:5-1.

On April 17, 1998, Szemple was sentenced to life imprisonment, subject to twenty-five years of parole ineligi- bility. That sentence was concurrent to the sentence he received in Hudson County, but consecutive to the sentence he received in Morris County.

Szemple appealed. He argued that the denial of his speedy trial motion and the denial of his request to represent himself were error. State v. Szemple, 332 N.J. Super. 322, 327 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 165 N.J. 604 (2000). He also argued that "the court erred in denying [his] motion to dismiss the indictment because [his] sixth amendment right to effective assistance of counsel was violated." Ibid. Szemple asserted his prior counsel was ineffective by "failing to pursue a speedy trial or dismissal on speedy trial grounds." Ibid.

We disagreed: to the extent [Szemple] sought a dismissal on the grounds of incompetence of counsel other than related to the lack of speedy trial, we agree with Judge Kingfield that a court in these circumstances cannot evaluate whether the second prong ("prejudice") of the Strickland test is satisfied without a trial actually taking place. [Szemple] does not claim he pled guilty because of the ineffective assistance of counsel who represented him at the time of plea, or even that he pled guilty merely because of the "prejudice" to his defense caused by his prior counsel. In any event, there is no dispute that the [IAC] claim was preserved under the conditional plea only with respect to the speedy trial claim, and [Szemple] does not seek to withdraw his plea. Accordingly, even assuming that some claims of [IAC] may in extraordinary circumstances give rise to the relief [Szemple] seeks, [(dismissal of the indictment),] this is not such a case, and we need not review [Szemple's] claims of [IAC] beyond those contentions preserved for appeal.

[Id. at 328 (internal quotations and citations omitted).] We rejected Szemple's other arguments and affirmed the judgment of conviction. Id. at 329-30. As noted, the Supreme Court denied certification.

On February 7, 2003, Szemple filed his first PCR petition related to the present matter. In response to the request in the PCR form for the specific "facts upon which the claim for relief is based, legal arguments and all claims," Szemple stated that "legal issues will be raised and addressed when counsel is appointed to represent Craig Szemple." The State moved to dismiss the petition, arguing that Szemple failed to meet the requirements of Rule 3:22-8 because he "did not set forth in any way, shape or form the facts upon which his claim for relief is based, the legal grounds of the complaint asserted, nor the particular relief sought." The PCR judge agreed with the State and dismissed the petition on March 28, 2003.

After obtaining designated counsel, Szemple filed an amended PCR petition on July 23, 2003. That petition asserted:

[Szemple's] trial counsel was grossly ineffective as he improperly investigated this matter, that his representation was tainted by a conflict of interest and as other documents and filings will show, counsel privately and publicly revealed that he believed his client to be guilty, [and] that he did not review ...

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