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State of New Jersey v. Helen Ewell

February 15, 2012


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Indictment No. 01-09-1155.

Per curiam.


Submitted January 23, 2012

Before Judges Sapp-Peterson and Newman.

Defendant Helen Ewell appeals from an order denying her petition for post-conviction relief (PCR). We affirm.

The relevant facts may be summarized as follows: On September 5, 2001, a Mercer County Grand Jury indicted defendant on Count One for first-degree murder (N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(2), Count Two, first-degree felony murder (N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(3), Count Three, second-degree possession of a weapon for unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4a, and Count Four, first-degree robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1. Defendant plead guilty to Accusation No. 03-06-292, charging first-degree aggravated manslaughter, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4a(1).

A plea agreement was made in which the State agreed to recommend a sentence of twenty-five years incarceration, eighty-five percent of which was to be served before defendant would be parole eligible in accordance with the No Early Release Act (NERA), N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2d(2), and dismiss the pending indictment in its entirety.

At the time of the plea, it was determined that defendant and Frank Hickmond resided together for almost four years at 307 Church Street in Trenton. Both defendant and the victim had been arguing most of the day. Defendant retrieved a handgun and pointed it at the unarmed victim who was seated on the couch in the living room of the residence. She fired the gun and struck the victim in the temple. She did not seek any medical attention for him, but instead went through his pockets to obtain money in order to buy drugs. The next day, she reported the shooting to the police.

The trial court sentenced defendant to twenty years imprisonment, eighty-five percent of which was to be served without parole eligibility. Prior to imposing sentence, the trial judge described the incident as an "execution." The trial judge recognized that defendant's criminal record was de minimus in relation to the aggravated manslaughter charge and thought it unlikely she would kill again. The court found on the record that the aggravating factors substantially outweighed the mitigating factors. The trial judge noted that he lacked sufficient information to determine if defendant had acted under a strong provocation because the contention that she suffered verbal and physical abuse by defendant was not supported with documentation in the absence of trial testimony. Notwithstanding what the trial judge stated at sentencing, the judgment of conviction enumerated three aggravating factors and five mitigating factors.

Defendant took a direct appeal to this court, and the matter was heard by an excessive sentencing panel. At argument before the sentencing panel, defense counsel raised the issue regarding the discrepancy between the aggravating and mitigating factors mentioned at sentencing and those appearing in the judgment of conviction. Nonetheless, this court found the sentence was "not unreasonable" and "even given full effect to all of those mitigating factors, could find no abuse of discretion in the imposition of what is the presumptive sentence for the offense of aggravated manslaughter." This court speaking through Judge Skillman found that the sentence was neither manifestly excessive nor unduly punitive and did not constitute an abuse of discretion.

Defendant filed for post-conviction relief. In denying relief, the PCR judge applied the two-prong standard to review ineffective assistance of counsel claims as set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S. Ct. 2052 80 L.Ed. 2d 674 (1984) and as adopted by our Supreme Court in State v. Fritz, 105 N.J. 42 (1987). The PCR judge considered it a strategic decision to argue within the range of the degree of offense for which defendant plead guilty. Thus, there was no ineffective assistance rendered.

Even, however, had defense counsel argued that the defendant be sentenced to one degree lower, there would not have been a different outcome in the sentencing. The PCR judge indicated that there was no reasonable probability that the result would have been different. With respect to the discrepancy between the judgment of conviction and what the trial judge stated on the record, the PCR judge indicated that the sentencing transcript was controlling. The PCR judge also noted that these arguments were made to some extent on the direct appeal and that the sentence was found not to be excessive. The PCR judge noted that it should not review issues that were already challenged on the direct appeal, citing State v. Cupe 289 N.J. Super. 1, 8 (App. Div. 1996) certif. denied, 144 N.J. 589 (1996). In rejecting the contention that there were factual issues that should have been decided by a hearing at the time of sentencing, the PCR judge indicated that the sentencing proceeding is not a trial where issues are explored through direct and cross-examination. The PCR judge rejected that such a hearing was required and stated he did not think that even if the argument had been made, it would have made any difference.

On appeal, defendant raises the following issues for ...

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