On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Indictment Nos. 05-08-1950, 05-09-2183, 05-09-2184, 05-09-2185, 05-09-2303, 05-09-2304.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted: April 25, 2012 -
Before Judges Cuff and Lihotz.
Defendant Al-Mutah Saunders appeals from the denial of his petition for post-conviction relief (PCR). He is serving an aggregate custodial term of thirty years subject to an 85% NERA*fn1 parole ineligibility term following his guilty plea to some or all counts of six indictments. This term runs consecutive to the term he was serving at the time of his June 2006 sentencing. Among the charges to which he pled guilty are: first degree carjacking, second degree aggravated assault, first degree attempted murder, first degree kidnapping (Ind. No. 2005-09-2183); second degree possession of a weapon by a convicted felon (Ind. No. 2005-09-2184); fourth degree contempt (Ind. No. 2005-09-2185); third degree terroristic threats (Ind. No. 2005-09-2304); second degree kidnapping, third degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose (Ind. No. 2005-09-2303); and second degree aggravated assault and fourth degree unlawful possession of a weapon (Ind. No. 2005-08-1950).
Defendant's direct appeal was limited to sentencing issues. We affirmed, State v. Saunders, No. A-0013-06 (App. Div. January 10, 2008), and the Supreme Court denied certification, 195 N.J. 421 (2008).
In his July 2008 pro se PCR petition, defendant alleged that he received ineffective assistance of trial and appellate counsel because his trial attorney did not obtain a mental health evaluation prior to entry of his guilty plea, that trial counsel did not subject the State's case to "a meaningful adversarial challenge," and that he was denied due process because the trial court did not obtain a clinical study of his physical or mental condition prior to sentencing. In support of his petition, defendant submitted a letter from his sister who described her brother as "mentally challenged" since childhood.
Counsel filed a brief in which he argued that the petition was not barred by Rule 3:22 and that he has established a prima facie case of ineffective trial and appellate counsel. Counsel contended that psychiatric records demonstrated that trial counsel should have obtained a psychiatric evaluation. He asserted that these records reveal a long history of mental problems and illnesses, that defendant was on medications when he entered his guilty plea, and that defendant was not capable of understanding the charges or entering a knowing and voluntary guilty plea. Counsel also argued that appellate counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel because he did not meet with defendant to discuss issues and confined the argument to the sentence imposed.
In support of the petition, counsel submitted a Special Appendix containing medical and psychiatric records of defendant from 1991, when he was enrolled in the East Orange school system, through December 2005, when a Department of Corrections Treatment Review Committee adopted a recommendation that defendant should be involuntarily medicated with psychotropic medication. Counsel did not submit a report from a medical professional that addressed defendant's physical or mental condition at the time of the April 20, 2006 guilty plea or the impact of any medications that he may have taken on his ability to enter a knowing and voluntary plea.
Judge Cifelli denied the petition after an evidentiary hearing. In his October 4, 2010 opinion, the judge reviewed the transcript of the guilty plea and sentencing proceedings and the medical records provided to him. The judge noted that defendant entered the guilty plea after a full day of trial and the trial judge had described the evidence offered by one victim as "devastating." The judge also noted that Judge Isabella, the judge who presided at the trial and at the plea proceeding, posed questions directly to defendant until he was satisfied that defendant understood the questions, the context, and the nature of the proceedings.
Judge Cifelli rejected defendant's contention that the records supplied to him established he was not capable of entering a knowing and voluntary guilty plea. He emphasized that defendant had not submitted a report by a medical professional that any or all of defendant's diagnoses or the medications he took had the capacity to cloud his judgment or impair his ability to enter a knowing and voluntary plea. The judge also remarked that there was no evidence that a report from a medical professional submitted at the time of sentencing would have influenced the sentencing judge to impose a lesser sentence in light of defendant's extensive criminal history. Finally, Judge Cifelli found that no evidence had been submitted that addressed defendant's mental capacity at the time he committed the various offenses to which he pled guilty or at the time he entered his guilty plea. Therefore, the judge held defendant failed to establish a prima facie case of ineffective assistance of trial or appellate counsel and dismissed the petition.
On appeal, defendant renews the arguments presented before the Law Division. He argues:
POINT I -THE ORDER DENYING POST-CONVICTION RELIEF SHOULD BE REVERSED BECAUSE THE DEFENDANT ESTABLISHED BY A PREPONDERANCE OF THE EVIDENCE THAT HIS FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT DUE PROCESS RIGHT TO BE PROTECTED AGAINST ENTERING A GUILTY PLEA UNDER CIRCUMSTANCES IN WHICH HIS MEDICATION STATUS PRECLUDES HIS ABILITY TO ENTER A KNOWING, VOLUNTARY AND FREE PLEA WAS VIOLATED.
POINT II -THE PCR COURT MISAPPLIED ITS DISCRETION IN DENYING THE DEFENDANT'S PETITION BECAUSE TRIAL COUNSEL'S FAILURE TO DEVELOP, OR DISCUSS WITH THE DEFENDANT THE EFFICACY OF DEVELOPING, A POSSIBLE DEFENSE OF DIMINISHED CAPACITY, AND TRIAL COUNSEL'S DEFICIENT PERFORMANCE AT SENTENCING, SATISFIED ...