On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Warren County, Indictment No. 07-06-0266.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sabatino, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges A. A. Rodriguez, Sabatino, and Ashrafi.
The opinion of the court was delivered by SABATINO, J.A.D.
This vehicular homicide case stems from a one-car accident in which defendant's boyfriend, who had been in the car with defendant, was killed after the car veered off the road and crashed into a tree. Both defendant and her boyfriend had been drinking that evening and were evidently impaired. The pivotal factual question at trial was whether, as the State contended, defendant was driving the car at the time of the crash, or whether, as the defense contended, the boyfriend was driving and defendant was the front-seat passenger. The jury adopted the State's theory and found defendant guilty of vehicular manslaughter.
Defendant's appeal principally raises a novel legal issue in our State as to whether a medical examiner, who the State concedes lacks expertise in either biomechanics or accident reconstruction, may present expert opinions at a vehicular homicide trial about the probable identity of the driver of the automobile before it crashed and the movements of the occupants within the vehicle as it decelerated. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we conclude that testimony by such a medical examiner as to the identity of the driver must be strictly confined to the areas of that examiner's expertise as to the nature and causes of bodily injuries.
Although it was permissible for the medical examiner to testify in certain respects about the physical forces that caused the boyfriend's fatal injuries, it was improper for him to render opinions about the probable movements of the occupants within the car as it decelerated and crashed, including an analysis of how the passenger's body allegedly "cushioned" the driver's body during the accident. Because such improper opinions, admitted over defense counsel's objections, addressed the crucial disputed issue at the trial, we reverse defendant's conviction and remand for a new trial.
The trial proofs relevant to the issues presented on appeal were as follows. Defendant Jennifer Lee Locascio went out drinking on the night of her twenty-fourth birthday in November 2006 with her boyfriend, Ryan Berry. They traveled in a Chevy Cobalt owned by defendant's father. Defendant admitted that she drove the Cobalt with Berry to a bowling alley, then to a supermarket, and finally to a bar. However, she contended that she did not drive the Cobalt after they left the bar and headed home because she felt she was not capable of taking the wheel at that point.
At about 1:15 a.m., the Cobalt went off the road on Route 519 in Hope Township and struck a tree. Neither defendant nor Berry was wearing a seatbelt. According to the data recorded by the car's "black box" device, the Cobalt had been traveling at 93 mph five seconds before the impact and at 48 mph one second before the impact.*fn1 The airbags deployed, and both occupants were thrown from the vehicle. Berry was thrown some fifteen to twenty-five feet out of the car, onto a pile of rocks. Defendant was found on the ground closer to the car on the passenger side. Berry died as a result of the crash. Defendant survived, although she was hospitalized for three weeks. The accident was not observed by any eyewitnesses.
A State Trooper responding to the accident scene testified that defendant told him she had been the driver -- a statement that defendant testified she did not remember making. The parties disputed defendant's coherence and level of consciousness when she spoke with the trooper. Defendant's blood alcohol content ("BAC") was measured at 0.193, and Berry's was 0.209, both well over the legal limit. See N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.
Defendant testified that, after giving Berry the car keys when they left the bar, she got in the passenger seat, removed her sneakers, put her pocketbook on the floor, put her feet on the dashboard, and fell asleep. She contended that she did not wake up until after the collision.
Defendant's father and her brother, who were allowed access to the vehicle the day after the accident, testified that they observed her sneakers and her pocketbook on the passenger-side floor of the vehicle. They also observed Berry's necklace on the driver's seat. Defendant's parents retrieved her belongings from the Cobalt about two months later. On that occasion, they noticed that defendant's sneakers had been moved*fn2 to the driver side floor, although defendant's pocketbook remained on the passenger side floor. Defendant's parents also discovered her cell phone on the passenger side of the Cobalt, tucked between that seat and the console.
Defendant was issued various motor vehicle summonses, including one for driving while under the influence of alcohol, N.J.S.A. 39:4-50. She was thereafter indicted by a grand jury and charged with vehicular manslaughter, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5.
The critical factual dispute at the six-day trial was whether defendant or Berry had been driving the Cobalt at the time of the crash. In addition to several fact witnesses, the State presented testimony from three expert witnesses: an accident reconstructionist employed by the State Police, the toxicologist who had measured the parties' BAC levels, and the county medical examiner. Defendant testified on her own behalf.
She also presented several fact witnesses, as well as testimony from an expert in accident reconstruction and biomechanics.
The State's accident reconstructionist did not specifically analyze who was driving the vehicle. However, the State presented, over defendant's objection, expert testimony from the medical examiner, explaining why he thought that defendant was the driver at the time of impact.
In contrast, defendant's expert concluded that Berry, not defendant, had been driving the vehicle when it crashed. He generally based his conclusion upon a biomechanical analysis of the forces within the car and a reconstruction of the accident sequence. The defense expert also attempted to explain how the person that he identified as the driver of the vehicle was killed, while the suppossed passenger sustained less severe injuries. The jury evidently agreed with the medical examiner's conclusion because it found defendant guilty.
The trial court imposed a custodial sentence of three years, with the mandatory minimum three-year period of parole ineligibility. N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5b(1). As part of its analysis, the court took into account not only the fatal nature of the offense but also defendant's lack of a prior criminal record and her status as a young mother of two dependent children. This appeal followed.
Defendant raises the following points for our consideration:
THE TRIAL COURT ERRED BY PERMITTING THE MEDICAL EXAMINER TO RENDER AN EXPERT OPINION OUTSIDE THE AREA OF HIS EXPERTISE POINT TWO
THE TRIAL COURT [ERRED] IN EXCLUDING EVIDENCE OFFERED BY DEFENDANT TO IMPEACH THE CREDIBILITY OF [THE] TROOPER [WHO HAD ISSUED THE TRAFFIC SUMMONSES]
THE PROSECUTOR'S COMMENTS DURING SUMMATION DEPRIVED DEFENDANT OF A FAIR TRIAL POINT FOUR
THE TRIAL COURT IMPROPERLY DENIED DEFENDANT'S MOTION ...