June 6, 2012
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
YUSAF HAGANS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Indictment No. 98-01-0120.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted April 16, 2012 -
Before Judges Alvarez and Skillman.
Defendant Yusaf Hagans entered guilty pleas to first-degree murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1), (2), and kidnapping, N.J.S.A. 2C:13-1(b), on March 1, 1999. After a successful appeal regarding the applicability of the earlier version of the No Early Release Act (NERA), N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2(a), to murder, State v. Yusaf Hagans, No. A-2913-99 (App. Div. Aug. 3, 2001) (slip op. at 2-3), defendant, on August 15, 2001, was resentenced. The plea agreement had contemplated that on appeal NERA might be found to be inapplicable to the murder, and, accordingly, provided for defendant's sentence in the alternative. Pursuant to that alternative sentence, defendant was imprisoned for life, subject to thirty years parole ineligibility for murder, consecutive to his sentence for kidnapping, id. at 2, of thirty years with twenty-five and one-half years of parole ineligibility. The result was an aggregate sentence of life, plus thirty years, with fifty-five and one-half years of parole ineligibility. Id. at 2.
On April 30, 2009, over seven years later, defendant filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief (PCR). On December 23, 2009, an amended counseled petition was filed. The application was denied on May 10, 2010, and this appeal followed. We affirm.
The circumstances surrounding the charges result from the brutal murder and sexual assault on November 1, 1997, of a ten-year-old child. They need not be recounted here, as they are not relevant to defendant's points on appeal.
It is relevant, however, to note that while the indictment was pending, at his attorney's direction, defendant's mental status was evaluated by two psychiatrists and one psychologist.*fn1
Although defendant was diagnosed with a host of conditions, including cognitive disorder not otherwise specified (NOS) due to fetal alcohol and drug syndrome; personality disorder NOS with schizotypal, immature, explosive, and anti-social features; major depressive disorder "with, at times, [p]sychotic [f]eatures[;]" and pedophilia, he was nonetheless found to be competent to stand trial.
One of the psychiatric experts, Dr. David Greenfield, actually testified prior to the entry of defendant's plea. Greenfield met with defendant twice, including the day of the plea, and opined that defendant was competent. Accordingly, Judge Barnett E. Hoffman, after the appropriate colloquy and findings, accepted defendant's guilty plea.
Turning now to defendant's PCR application, the Law Division judge stated that although the State would be greatly prejudiced by the untimeliness of defendant's application, "the magnitude of [defendant's] claims are also great; and if his claims were true, [defendant] would be made to suffer an injustice. Therefore, this [c]court would find that there has been excusable neglect in the case sufficient to relax the time bar." The judge did not articulate any fact or law that would constitute excusable neglect. Without any further comment than what we have quoted, the court went on to address, and ultimately deny, defendant's arguments on the merits.
The following are defendant's points on appeal:
THE PCR COURT ERRED IN RULING THAT THE FAILURE OF THE TRIAL COURT TO HOLD A FULL COMPETENCY HEARING ON DEFENDANT'S COMPETENCE TO STAND TRIAL AND/OR PLEAD GUILTY DID NOT VIOLATE DEFENDANT'S CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT TO DUE PROCESS
THE PCR COURT ERRED IN REJECTING DEFENDANT'S CLAIM THAT HIS SIXTH AMENDMENT RIGHT TO EFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL WAS VIOLATED BY THE TRIAL COUNSEL'S FAILURE TO HAVE DEFENDANT'S COMPETENCY DETERMINED BY PSYCHIATRIC EXPERTS AND FAILURE TO REQUEST THE COURT CONDUCT A FORMAL AND THOROUGH COMPETENCY HEARING BEFORE THE START OF PROCEEDINGS AGAINST HIM (partially raised below)
DEFENDANT'S RIGHT TO EFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL WAS VIOLATED WHEN THE TRIAL COUNSEL FAILED TO CROSS-EXAMINE DR. GREENFIELD AT THE PERFUNCTORY HEARING HELD BEFORE DEFENDANT ENTERED HIS GUILTY PLEA (partially raised below)
THE PCR COURT ERRED IN REJECTING DEFENDANT'S CLAIM THAT THE TRIAL COURT FAILED TO SUFFICIENTLY ESTABLISH THAT [DEFENDANT'S] GUILTY PLEA WAS [KNOWING], VOLUNTARY AND INTELLIGENT GIVEN THAT DEFENDANT WAS MENTALLY AND EMOTIONALLY DISABLED AND TAKING MEDICATION AT THE TIME OF THE PLEA
THE PCR COURT ABUSED ITS DISCRETION IN MAKING FACTUAL FINDINGS WITHOUT THE BENEFIT OF AN EVIDENTIARY HEARING 
We affirm denial of PCR, but choose to do so solely on the basis of Rule 3:22-12(a). Therefore, we do not reach the merits of defendant's substantive arguments.
The rule states that first petitions, such as the one filed in this case, shall not be considered if filed five years beyond entry of judgment of conviction unless a defendant can establish excusable neglect and a reasonable probability that if his factual assertions were found to be true, enforcement of the time bar would result in a fundamental injustice. R. 3:22-12(a). Here, defendant's only claim of excusable neglect is that he was not aware of the time bar and that, in any event, his mental status prevented him from filing a more timely application.
Ignorance of the law or court rules alone, however, is not considered excusable neglect. State v. Merola, 365 N.J. Super. 203, 218 (Law. Div. 2002) (citing State v. Murray, 162 N.J. 240, 246 (2000)), aff'd 365 N.J. Super. 82 (App. Div. 2003).
Additionally, State v. D.D.M., 140 N.J. 83 (1993), defeats any claim that defendant's psychological conditions gave rise to excusable neglect. When claims of this sort are made, "specific facts" have to be "adduced with regard to defendant's mental state to show that his psychological treatment . . . prevented him from pursuing his rights and remedies either on appeal or within the five years provided by statute." Id. at 100; see also State v. Cummings, 321 N.J. Super. 154, 170 (App. Div.), (finding that psychological treatment does not constitute excusable neglect unless defendant can show that the treatment prevented him from pursuing the petition in a timely manner), certif. denied, 162 N.J. 199 (1999). Without more, the fact defendant may suffer from psychological conditions does not amount to excusable neglect.
In the absence of excusable neglect, defendant is not entitled to relaxation of the time bar under Rule 3:22-12(a). Accordingly, we affirm the denial of the PCR petition, albeit for a different reason than the trial court. See Home Properties of N.Y., L.P. v. Ocino, Inc., 341 N.J. Super. 604, 616 (App. Div. 2001) (holding that "[a]ppeals . . . are from decisions of a trial court and not from opinions of a trial court.").