On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Indictment No. 09-06-2092.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 23, 2012
Before Judges Grall and Alvarez.
After trial by jury, defendant Jamie Centeno was convicted of first-degree murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1), (2) (count one); second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(a) (count two); second-degree unlawful possession of a handgun, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b) (count three); third-degree endangering an injured victim, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1.2 (count four); and certain persons not to possess weapons, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-7(b) (count five). On March 23, 2010, defendant was sentenced to life on the murder charge, subject to the No Early Release Act (NERA), N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2(a). Count two was merged with count one. He received a five-year term of imprisonment on count three, concurrent to count one. Four years of imprisonment were made consecutive to count one on count four, and a seven-year term with five years of parole ineligibility on count five was also made consecutive to counts one and four. Appropriate monetary penalties were also imposed. Defendant appeals, and we affirm.
We summarize the facts from the trial record. Defendant's killing of Jose Sosa occurred around midnight on December 13, 2008. Sosa was then seated with a friend at the bar, The Waterview Inn, also known as Monte's.*fn1 Earlier that evening, when defendant entered the bar, he asked the bartender, Rose Marie Nelson, if he could charge his cell phone. She directed him to another area of the bar, near the pool table. Defendant was wearing dark clothes, including a jacket or "hoodie." During the course of the evening, defendant and an acquaintance, Diana Ocasio, spoke briefly. Defendant complimented Ocasio on her appearance, and with his cell phone photographed the two of them standing together.
Approximately twenty or twenty-five minutes after defendant and Nelson spoke regarding his cell phone, defendant walked back into the bar area towards the victim, which drew Nelson's attention, as she knew that Sosa and defendant "didn't get along." Even though defendant's hood was pulled over his head, she could see his face. Indeed, Nelson testified that she had a frontal view of him until he turned to Sosa; she could even see the scar on the left side of his face. Nelson watched as defendant walked up to Sosa and drew a small gun. He pointed the gun downward towards Sosa's left side "[a]round his shoulder towards his chest area[,]" and shot him. Nelson heard a loud popping noise as the gun was fired and saw defendant walk out of the bar.
Nelson immediately called 911 and began to administer CPR to Sosa. She and other patrons eventually placed the victim in the back of a pickup truck because they feared the ambulance might be delayed in arriving. Nelson gave a statement that night and subsequently called the Camden County Prosecutor's Office after discovering defendant's cell phone where he had left it, still plugged into the wall near the pool table in the bar.
Miguel Mota testified that he was at Monte's that evening playing pool when, some ten or fifteen minutes after arriving between 11:00 and midnight, he heard a "loud pop." He grabbed his wife and sister-in-law and pushed them into a nearby bathroom. When he turned in the direction of the bar towards the source of the noise, there were "a lot of people running." From a few feet away, Mota saw an individual, hand extended outward holding a gun, wearing a black hoodie, however, he could not see a face. The victim grabbed his side and attempted to walk towards the door but collapsed on the ground. The gunman simply walked out of the bar.
Felicia Santiago, another bar patron who had known Sosa for several years, recalled noticing when he and his companion entered the premises and sat at the short end of the bar. When Santiago went outside to smoke a cigarette in the parking lot, she encountered defendant as he arrived and hugged him, as she had known him for three or four years. She introduced him to her friend. Once back inside, Santiago observed some "eye contact" between defendant and Sosa and felt sudden tension in the air. Minutes later, defendant left. After a short while, she heard the door open, the sound of a gunshot, and people running. Santiago did not see who fired the shot, but saw the victim make an abrupt movement and heard him tell her to "stay down . . . ." Sosa headed towards the door but fell backwards onto the ground.
The forensic evidence recovered from the scene corroborated that only a single shot was fired; only one projectile and one shell casing were recovered from the floor of the bar. The medical examiner, Dr. Gerald Feigin, testified that death was caused by a gunshot wound to the left side of the chest. The bullet "pass[ed] through a large artery and vein in the right lung causing massive bleeding[,]" exiting through the back. Feigin also testified that the three-by-five-inch area of stippling or gunpowder burns surrounding the entrance of the projectile indicated it was an intermediate range gunshot wound, in his opinion fired from a distance of six to eighteen inches, although in "the literature," the range of six inches to two feet was described as consistent with similar markings. The two-inch difference in height between the entrance wound and exit wound meant that the weapon was fired at a downward angle.
In September 2005, Investigator Martin Farrell of the Camden County Prosecutor's Office had investigated Sosa's involvement in the assault of Edwin Centeno, defendant's brother. While the investigation was ongoing, Farrell sent several letters to Centeno's home, eventually visiting the residence. Although Centeno was not there, Farrell spoke with defendant and explained the purpose of his visit. Because Edwin Centeno died a short time later in a car accident, Farrell never did speak to defendant's brother. As a result of his death and the State's inability to locate the second victim of the assault, the indictment charging the victim, Sosa, with, among other things, attempted murder, was dismissed in January 2007.
On appeal, defendant raises the following points:
THE TRIAL JUDGE'S FAILURE TO GIVE A SUA SPONTE JURY CHARGE ON PASSION/PROVOCATION MANSLAUGHTER DENIED MR. CENTENO A FAIR TRIAL IN VIOLATION OF HIS RIGHTS. [U.S. CONST.] AMEND XIV; [N.J. CONST.] (1947) ART. I, PARS. 1, 9, 10. (NOT RAISED BELOW)
THE TRIAL JUDGE ERRED IN BARRING CROSS-EXAMINATION REGARDING A WITNESS'S REQUIREMENT TO REGISTER ...