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State of New Jersey v. Marcus King

April 12, 2012

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
MARCUS KING, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Wefing

SYLLABUS

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized.)

State v. Marcus King

(A-104-10) (067265)

Argued January 4, 2012

Decided April 12, 2012

WEFING, P.J.A.D. (temporarily assigned), writing for a unanimous Court.

In this appeal the Court considers defendant's contention that the trial court improperly denied him the right to self-representation.

On September 25, 2002, three armed men robbed a Howard Johnson hotel in North Plainfield. An hour later, three armed men robbed a hotel in Bridgewater and a guest in the hotel's restaurant/kitchen area. In both robberies, the robbers covered their faces and none of the victims were able to identify the perpetrators. Defendant, together with another man, Khaleel Butts, was apprehended a week later, following a third unrelated robbery. Both Butts and defendant confessed to their involvement with the two hotel robberies and identified Saheed Nurideen as the other participant. In October 2002, together with his two cohorts, defendant was indicted for three counts of first-degree robbery, one for each of the hotel clerks and one for the guest. Defendant originally entered a negotiated plea of guilty, under which he agreed to testify against Nurideen. When he later refused to testify, his guilty plea was vacated and the matter was scheduled for trial.

Shortly before the trial was scheduled to begin, defendant's attorney informed the trial court that defendant wished to represent himself at his trial. Counsel further informed the court that defendant had participated in two trials already and understood the judicial process. The trial court questioned defendant with respect to his knowledge of particular areas, asking, for example, if defendant knew what a statute is (defendant was unable to give an accurate response); if he knew the statutory penalty for first-degree robbery (defendant did not); and if he was familiar with the rules of evidence (defendant said he had them copied down but "couldn't tell you them offhand"). Defendant explained he had done some reading at the law library to prepare for trial. The trial court asked what books he had read, and defendant responded that he had read a book on trial procedure; he could not recall the author but said he had the name "written down." The court asked defendant if he knew what defenses were available to him. Defendant indicated that he did not. At one point during the colloquy, defendant stated: "I am willing to go to trial with what I have prepared for myself. I can't explain it. I can't sit and explain it to you in legal terms. But I know in my terms what I am ready to do." The trial judge asked defendant how he intended to present his case, to which defendant responded: "I would rather not get into that right now. Then the Prosecutor is going to know what I am going to do." The trial judge asked defendant if he knew what a lesser included offense was and defendant responded that he did not. Defendant also said he wanted his present attorney to act as standby counsel, a position that was satisfactory to defense counsel.

After listening to defendant's responses to the various questions, the trial court proceeded to rule on the application. The trial court stated that it was not "satisfied" that defendant "fully under[stood] the nature and consequences of this decision." It pointed to the fact that defendant was unable to state what he had written down while doing research in the law library a few days ago and could not adequately answer the court's questions about the court rules or the evidence rules. The court found that defendant's "inability to do that" precluded an intelligent waiver of his right to counsel. Accordingly, the trial court denied defendant's application and directed that the trial proceed with defense counsel representing defendant.

Defendant was tried with his co-defendant, Saheed Nurideen, who had earlier been granted permission to represent himself with the assistance of standby counsel. The jury found defendant guilty on all accounts but was unable to reach a decision with respect to Mr. Nurideen, resulting in a mistrial with respect to him. The trial court sentenced defendant to an aggregate term of thirty-five years in prison, subject to the parole ineligibility provisions of N.J.S.A. 2C:43-72.

Before the Appellate Division, defendant contended that the courts' ruling violated his right to self-representation. The Appellate Division affirmed defendant's convictions and sentence.

The Supreme Court granted defendant's Petition for Certification. State v. King, 206 N.J. 64 (2011).

HELD: The trial court's examination was insufficient and, as a result, its ultimate determination was flawed.

Because the Supreme Court is satisfied that the record created in response to defendant's motion does not support the denial of his right to represent himself, his convictions must be reversed.

1. Both the United States Constitution and our New Jersey Constitution grant defendants charged with a criminal offense the right to have the assistance of counsel. The corollary to the right of a criminal defendant to be represented by an attorney is the defendant's right to represent himself. In Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806 (1975), the Court recognized that a defendant's decision to proceed pro se may be fraught with risk but that the existence of such risk provides no basis to deny a defendant the right to make that choice. In State v. Reddish, 181 N.J. 553, 585-86 (2004), then-Justice Zazzali expressed the view that "Faretta, ultimately, is about respecting a defendant's capacity to make choices for himself, whether to his benefit or to his detriment." A defendant's right to self-representation is not absolute, however, and it cannot be used to jeopardize the State's equally strong interest in ensuring the fairness of judicial proceedings and the integrity of trial verdicts. Thus, a trial court has the duty to assure that a defendant's waiver of counsel is made "knowingly and intelligently." State v. Crisafi, 128 N.J. 499, 509 (1992). To fulfill this duty, a trial court must inform a defendant of the charges to be tried, the statutory defenses to those charges, the potential sentencing exposure that accompanies those charges, the risks defendant faces and the problems he may encounter. In addition, the court should explain a pro se defendant's obligation to follow the applicable rules of procedure and evidence as would a licensed attorney. A trial court must also ensure that a pro se defendant is aware that in the event of a conviction, he will not be able to seek post-conviction relief alleging he had been deprived of the effective assistance of counsel. In engaging a defendant in such a colloquy, the trial court's goal is not to explore a defendant's familiarity with "'technical legal knowledge[,]'" for that is not required. Reddish, supra, 181 N.J. at 595 (quoting Faretta, supra, 422 U.S. at 835). The question is "whether he actually understands the nature and consequences of his waiver." Id. at 594. Finally, the trial court should consider the particular nature of the waiver being sought -- whether the defendant seeks to handle his defense entirely by himself, whether he seeks to exercise it in part and handle only portions of the trial, or whether defendant seeks to handle the trial with the assistance of standby counsel, as is the case in this appeal. (pp. 14-19)

2. The Court concludes that the trial court's examination was insufficient and, as a result, its ultimate determination was flawed. The Court notes that the deficiencies in the manner in which the trial court handled defendant's application are undoubtedly due, in some measure, to the way in which defendant presented the issue. The trial court was confronted with a complex legal issue on the eve of the scheduled trial date with no meaningful opportunity to prepare. The better course would have been for the trial court to declare a short recess to review which issues should be addressed and how. The trial court's questions in this case go to whether defendant had technical legal knowledge, not whether he comprehended the risks and consequences of acting as his own attorney. Defendant was well aware of the nature of trials and demonstrated his awareness of the importance of trial strategy, refusing to tell the trial court how he intended to represent himself lest the prosecutor would know in advance what he planned to do. The trial court was concerned understandably about defendant's ability to present a sound defense. Such concern, no matter how well-intentioned, cannot override defendant's exercise of his right to decide to represent himself. Nothing within the colloquy indicated that defendant lacked the competency to make that choice. Because the Court is satisfied that the record created in response to defendant's motion does not support the denial of his right to represent himself, his convictions must be reversed. (pp. 19-23)

Defendant's convictions are REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, HOENS, and PATTERSON join in JUDGE WEFING's opinion.

Argued January 4, 2012

Judge Wefing (temporarily assigned) delivered the opinion of the Court.

A jury convicted defendant of three counts of first-degree robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1. The trial court sentenced defendant to an aggregate term of thirty-five years in prison, subject to the parole ineligibility provisions of N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2. The Appellate Division affirmed defendant's convictions and sentence in an unpublished opinion. We granted certification to consider defendant's contention that the trial court improperly denied him the right to self-representation. Because our review of this record and the arguments presented by the parties convince us that defendant is correct, we reverse his convictions and remand this matter to the trial court for further proceedings.

I.

In the early morning hours of September 25, 2002, three armed men entered a Howard Johnson hotel in North Plainfield. They assaulted the clerk who was on duty and demanded he hand over the hotel's money. When the clerk was unable to comply with their demands for access to the hotel's safe, they took the several hundred dollars in cash that was in the register and left. Approximately an hour later, three armed men entered another hotel in Bridgewater; two entered the lobby and the third proceeded to the restaurant/kitchen area. The two intruders in the lobby went to the desk clerk, and one, brandishing a knife, demanded money. The second intruder kicked the clerk and ordered him to take the men to the hotel safe and open it. As with the first hotel, the clerk surrendered the money he had but was unable to open the safe. While the first two intruders were occupied with the clerk, the third intruder held a guest at gun-point in the hotel's restaurant/kitchen area and rifled through her pockets. After their efforts to obtain access to the hotel's safe again proved fruitless, the three intruders departed. In both robberies, the robbers covered their faces and none of the victims were able to identify the perpetrators.

Defendant, together with another man, Khaleel Butts, was apprehended a week later, following a third unrelated robbery. Both Butts and defendant confessed to their involvement with the two hotel robberies and identified Saheed Nurideen as the other participant. In October 2002, together with his two cohorts, defendant was indicted for three counts of first-degree robbery, one for each of the hotel clerks and one for the guest. Defendant originally entered a negotiated plea of guilty, under which he agreed to testify against Nurideen. When he later refused to testify, his guilty plea was vacated and the matter was scheduled for trial.*fn1

Defendant, accompanied by his attorney, appeared before the trial court shortly before the trial was scheduled to begin. His attorney informed the trial court that he had had several discussions with defendant and that defendant had informed counsel that he wished to represent himself at his trial. Defense counsel told the court that defendant's request was not unexpected, as defendant had been contemplating the issue for some time. The attorney provided the trial court with some background information with respect to defendant, noting that defendant was literate and, while he had not graduated from high school, he had completed the tenth grade. He also said that defendant had participated in two trials already and understood the judicial process.

When the prosecutor did not interpose any objection to the informal manner in which the issue was presented, the trial court proceeded to deal with the substance of the request. In response to the trial court's question, defendant told the court that he had recently been tried in Monmouth County on a similar charge and had sat through all the proceedings, including various motions that had been argued. Defendant told the trial court that he had been convicted at that trial, which resulted in the imposition of an extended sentence. The trial court then questioned defendant with respect to his knowledge of particular areas, asking, for example, if defendant knew what a statute is (defendant was unable to give an accurate response); if he knew the statutory penalties for first-degree robbery (defendant did not); and if he was familiar with the rules of evidence (defendant said he had them copied down but "couldn't tell you them offhand").

Defendant explained he had done some reading at the law library to prepare for trial. The trial court asked what books he had read, and defendant responded that he had read a book on trial procedure; he could not recall the author but said he had the name "written down." The colloquy continued as follows:

Q. What defenses do you have?

A. Say that again, sir.

Q. Do you have any defenses?

A. No, sir.

Q. Did you look it up in any of the books to determine what kind of defenses are available to a person charged with robbery?

A. No, sir, I wasn't focused on that. Q. Well, how are you going to defend yourself if you don't know what defenses might be available to you?

A. Because the only thing I was paying attention to was the statements I was given, the strategies I could use when I get my turn to approach the witnesses. Stuff like that. I wasn't focused on all that other stuff. I was just focused on my cross-examine.

Q. Do you think it would be helpful to you to know -- have some idea what defenses might be available to a person under the penal code who is charged with robbery?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. But you didn't look those defenses up?

A. Right now I am in the process -- while I am at the County Jail I am looking all that up. I had all that written down. But I wasn't aware that I was being brought to court, so I wasn't able to bring my paperwork with me.

Q. So are you telling me that, as you stand here today, you have no idea what the defenses to robbery might be?

A. No, sir, I don't.

Q. Well, do you think you might have some difficulty in trying this case if you don't even have an idea what your defenses might be?

A. No, ...


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