On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Indictment No 06-10-3592.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Messano, Yannotti and Guadagno.
Defendant was tried before a jury, and found guilty of aggravated manslaughter, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4(a), and two counts of hindering apprehension or prosecution, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3(b)(1) and (a)(3). Defendant appeals from his convictions and the sentences imposed. We affirm.
Defendant was charged with first-degree murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1) and (2); first-degree conspiracy to commit murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1) and (2) and N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2; three counts of third-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(d); three counts of fourth-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(d); third-degree endangering an injured victim, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1.2; and four counts of third-degree hindering apprehension or prosecution, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3(a)(3) and N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3(b)(1). Prior to trial, the State dismissed one count of hindering his own apprehension and one count of hindering the prosecution of another person.
At the trial, the State presented evidence which established that on March 20, 2006, defendant walked into Oaklyn police headquarters and claimed he suspected there was a dead body in his apartment in Gloucester City. Defendant consented to a search of his apartment and his garbage. Officers from the Gloucester City Police Department entered defendant's apartment and found the dead body of Lisa Hoopes (Hoopes) lying on the couch, covered with a blanket, with duct tape around her neck. Hoopes and the couch were covered in blood, and there was a considerable amount of blood in the apartment.
The police found a bloody pair of scissors, a trash bag full of clothes in the oven, and a bloody hammer inside the microwave. Around ten o'clock that morning, defendant was taken to the offices of the Camden County Prosecutor, where he was questioned by Investigators John Greer and James Bruno, and Detective Mark Ridge. Defendant was informed of his Miranda rights.*fn1 He signed a written waiver of those rights.
Defendant told the investigators that, on the previous Friday, March 17, 2006, he ingested cocaine in his apartment with Karen Ann Sluzalis (Sluzalis) and Brian Springer (Springer). At some point, Mark Berky (Berky), a person defendant knew from the neighborhood, arrived and Springer left. Later that night, defendant and Berky left the apartment to purchase liquor, leaving Sluzalis alone. While defendant and Berky were out, they met Hoopes, who returned to the apartment with them. Hoopes, Berky and Sluzalis later left.
Very early on Saturday, March 18, 2006, Berky returned to defendant's apartment and asked defendant to bring Sluzalis's car to her with "two bags of dope and $20.00[.]" When defendant arrived at Sluzalis's apartment, she was upset. She said that Berky and Hoopes had "played" him. Defendant and Sluzalis then "started shootin' some coke[.]"
At some point, Sluzalis called Hoopes and arranged to meet her at defendant's apartment. Sluzalis went to meet Hoopes later Saturday morning. When she returned, she had blood on her hands and appeared disheveled. Defendant asked what happened but did not press her. He remained at Sluzalis's apartment until she kicked him out early Monday morning, at which point, he went to the police, as he said, "to cover [his] ass[.]"
Defendant told the investigators that Sluzalis had "some type of" altercation with Hoopes in his apartment on Friday night, and he was concerned that if he went home, he would be "walking into . . . somethin[g]" that he was not "aware of" and which he wanted "no part of." After about an hour, defendant invoked his right to counsel and his right to remain silent. The interview ended. Defendant was placed under arrest. He was required to remove his boots before being placed in a holding cell. After observing bloodstains on defendant's boots, the investigators obtained a warrant to seize defendant's boots and clothing. On March 20, 2006, the investigators obtained DNA samples from defendant and Sluzalis.
Later that day, defendant told the investigators he wanted to provide them with more information, but said that he did not want to speak with Greer, Bruno or Ridge. Around 5:30 p.m., Investigators Eric Wren and Diane Wilson interviewed defendant. Before that interview, defendant was again informed of his Miranda rights, and he again signed a waiver of those rights.
In his second interview, defendant said that on March 18, 2006, he was in his apartment with Springer and Sluzalis, when Sluzalis invited Hoopes to the apartment. Hoopes arrived and, at some point thereafter, defendant was with Springer in the kitchen when they heard a commotion in the living room. They found Sluzalis and Hoopes engaged in a physical altercation.
Defendant stated that "somebody had a knife[.]" It was a four-inch, camouflage, switchblade that Sluzalis always carried. He said that he initially thought Springer was trying to pull the two women apart, but then he realized that Springer was also hitting Hoopes. According to defendant, Sluzalis pulled a hammer from his tool box and struck Hoopes with it. Springer then did the same.
Defendant claimed that he did not participate in the attack but saw that Hoopes was suffering and attempted to "put her out of her misery" by "stomp[ing] her one time[,]" like he had once done with an injured baby bird. Defendant stated that, despite the injuries, Hoopes managed to pull herself onto the couch.
Defendant did not attempt to help Hoopes because he "felt a little bit threatened[,]" by Sluzalis and Springer. After the attack, defendant, Sluzalis and Springer put the hammer in the microwave and poured bleach on the knife before throwing it into the trash dumpster. After the second interview, defendant was transported to a hospital because of complications from diabetes.
Sara Wadsworth (Wadsworth), defendant's downstairs neighbor, testified that defendant called her from the hospital and told her he had been in his apartment with several other persons. He said that, when he went into another room, the two women argued and, and when he returned, he saw Sluzalis "slicing the woman's throat" and the other guy "beating her in the head with a hammer." Defendant told Wadsworth that the injured woman was lying on the floor, and she "looked like a little baby bird that had to be put out of her misery." Defendant said that he kicked the woman in the head to put her out of her misery.
John Sorranto (Sorranto), Wadsworth's live-in boyfriend, testified that he also spoke with defendant when he called from the hospital. Defendant admitted that he "stomped" on the woman's head. According to Sorranto, defendant said that either Springer or Sluzalis hit her with a blunt object, and the other one cut her with either . . . a bottle or something to that effect, and after that time he didn't know if she was already dead or not. He was afraid - he was feeling as though if he didn't get involved himself he might have been the next one on the list. He didn't know. And he [saw] she was like mortally wounded and he said that he tried to put her out of her misery.
The State established that the clothes found in the oven contained defendant's and Springer's DNA. Hoopes's blood was on the scissors and defendant's boots, but the forensic lab was unable to generate a DNA profile for the blood found on the hammer, possibly because it had been heated in the microwave. An empty wine bottle found in the apartment was covered with blood. The fingerprints on the bottle could not be identified.
The Camden County Medical Examiner, Gerald Feigin, M.D. (Dr. Feigin), testified that an autopsy was performed on Hoopes's body. Dr. Feigin stated that Hoopes had multiple wounds to the head caused by blunt trauma, the largest of which was four-and-one-half inches. There was a two-and-one-half inch laceration on Hoopes's head, and a number of "cutting wounds" on her hands and arms, indicating that she tried to defend herself. In addition, Hoopes's right forearm was broken in multiple places. Dr. Feigin opined that Hoopes died of trauma and not from any pre-existing or co-morbid condition.
Christopher Hoskins (Hoskins) lived across the hall from defendant. He testified that he saw a black man and a white woman waiting for defendant in front of his apartment on the evening of Friday, March 17, 2006. They entered the apartment with defendant, after he arrived. Around midnight, Hoskins heard banging noises coming from defendant's apartment. He described the noises as stomping and banging sounds, but thought they sounded like someone was moving furniture.
The jury found defendant not guilty of first-degree murder, but guilty of aggravated manslaughter, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4(a), and two counts of hindering apprehension or prosecution, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3(a)(3) and N.J.S.A. 2C:39-3(b)(1). The trial court granted the State's motion for imposition of an extended term pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:44-3(a).
The court sentenced defendant to forty years of incarceration for the aggravated manslaughter conviction, with a period of parole ineligibility as prescribed by the No Early Release Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2 (NERA). The court additionally sentenced defendant to concurrent, five-year terms of incarceration, each with two-and-one-half years of parole ineligibility for the hindering apprehension and prosecution convictions. Appropriate fines and penalties also were imposed. The court entered a judgment of conviction dated June 5, 2009.
On appeal, defendant raises the following arguments for our consideration:
DEFENDANT'S STATEMENTS IN HIS SECOND INTERROGATION SESSION AT THE PROSECUTOR'S OFFICE WERE ADMITTED IN VIOLATION OF HIS FEDERAL AND STATE RIGHTS ...