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State of New Jersey v. John Muniz

December 30, 2011


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Indictment No. 04-01-0039.

Per curiam.



Submitted November 16, 2011 - Decided Before Judges Fuentes and Koblitz.

Defendant John Muniz appeals from the October 12, 2010 order denying his application to withdraw his guilty plea entered on April 5, 2004, due to his severe mental illness. We affirm, holding that the motion judge did not abuse his discretion in determining that the denial of defendant's motion to withdraw his guilty plea did not constitute a manifest injustice.

In January 2003, a Middlesex County Grand Jury charged defendant John Muniz and co-defendant Elizabeth Muniz with four counts of first-degree aggravated sexual assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2a (counts one, two, three and four); four counts of third-degree aggravated sexual contact, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-3a (counts five, six, seven and eight); and three counts of second-degree endangering the welfare of a child, N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4a (counts nine, ten and eleven). Defendant pled guilty to count nine of the indictment. The charge arose out of allegations that between March 1, 2003, and June 30, 2003, while he and his wife, the co-defendant, were baby-sitting a fourteen-year-old girl, he touched the girl's buttocks to sexually gratify himself. He was sentenced to three years in prison, and was ordered to comply with the provisions of Megan's Law upon his release and submit the required DNA samples, and to be subject to community supervision for life. Defendant was also ordered to pay $1000 in restitution to the victim's mother, as well as the mandatory fees.

Before entering his guilty plea in 2004, defendant's attorney stated on the record that he and defendant had discussed the consequences and terms of the plea in detail, he answered defendant's questions, and that they had gone over the forms for approximately fifty minutes. Defendant acknowledged that his attorney explained to him in detail the rights he would be relinquishing as a result of his guilty plea and the consequences of the plea itself.

Judge Frederick P. DeVesa, P.J.Cr.,*fn1 then explained to defendant that he would have a conviction on his record and that he could be sentenced to a maximum prison term of three years. Judge DeVesa informed defendant that his earliest release on parole would be after nine months in prison if the maximum sentence under the plea agreement was imposed. Judge DeVesa also indicated that the agreement would bar defendant from having any contact with the victim and that he would be responsible for paying her therapy expenses. Defendant responded that he understood all of these consequences.

Judge DeVesa informed defendant that he would be ordering a psychological report from the Department of Corrections before defendant's sentencing due to the sexual nature of the charges. He told defendant that if the report indicated that defendant was "repetitive and compulsive," he could be sentenced to imprisonment in the Adult Diagnostic Treatment Center (ADTC), which he explained was "a prison for sex offenders." N.J.S.A. 2C:47-1. He further explained that if imprisoned in the ADTC, defendant would be subject to different parole guidelines and he could potentially serve a longer term before becoming eligible for parole. The judge then informed defendant of his obligations to submit a DNA sample, to comply with the provisions of Megan's Law,*fn2 to pay the mandatory fines and penalties, and to submit to community supervision for life. Defendant said that he understood all of these consequences.

Judge DeVesa then proceeded to question defendant. During this exchange, defendant said that he received no additional promises, he was not under the influence of any drug or substance that would impair his judgment or understanding, no one was coercing him to plead guilty and he was pleading guilty freely and voluntarily because he was guilty of the crime and the plea was in his best interest.

Defendant's attorney then asked defendant about the factual basis for the charges. Defendant said that he touched the victim while baby-sitting for her. When first asked why he touched her buttocks, defendant said "I'm not sure." Defense counsel then said, "[n]ow I'm going to ask the question again. Why did you touch her on the behind?" Defendant then answered, "[t]o sexually gratify me." Defendant stated that the victim was fourteen years old and he understood that he had assumed a legal duty to care for her in his role as babysitter. He also admitted that touching her on the buttocks was wrong.

Judge DeVesa accepted defendant's guilty plea, indicating he was satisfied that defendant was "pleading guilty freely and voluntarily; that he underst[ood] the consequences of his plea and that no undisclosed promises or threats had been made to cause him to plead guilty[,] [a]nd . . . there [was] an adequate factual basis for the plea of guilty."

On May 12, 2004, defendant was evaluated by Mark Frank, Ph.D., to determine whether or not defendant should be incarcerated in the ADTC. Defendant was found to have "an estimated Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale-Revised Full Scale I.Q. placing him within the 'Mentally Deficient' classification of intellectual functioning. Both the pattern of his scores and clinical impression suggest higher potential, perhaps in the 'Borderline' range." Defendant's drawings were "childlike and regressed," but were not "reflective of serious underlying psychopathology of a psychotic nature. Nor were they clearly indicative of neurological impairment." During the evaluation, defendant denied feelings of sexual attraction toward the victim or any other juvenile. In his report, Dr. Frank noted that "[a]lthough [defendant] pled guilty to touching the victim's buttocks, during the present examination he denied culpability." He further observed that defendant's offense was not part of "a repetitive, compulsive pattern of criminal sexual behavior," but rather his "offense conduct is probably best understood within the broader context of his chronic emotional disturbance. [Defendant] has a long history of depression and Schizoaffective Disorder. He has experienced hallucinations and delusions and his judgment can be impaired." Dr. Frank then recommended continued psychiatric treatment for defendant.

The pre-sentence report (PSR) details defendant's mental health history. As of March 2000, defendant was rendered disabled and unable to work as a result of a long-term psychiatric illness, for which he had been hospitalized on at ...

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