On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County, Indictment No. 09-10-1820.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted March 13, 2012 -
Before Judges Reisner, Simonelli and Accurso.
Following a jury trial, defendant Stacy Hall was convicted of second-degree aggravated arson, N.J.S.A. 2C:17-1a (count one); two counts of third-degree arson, N.J.S.A. 2C:17-1b (counts two and three); and third-degree criminal mischief, N.J.S.A. 2C:17-3a(1) (count four). The trial judge sentenced defendant on count one to a extended term of fifteen years' imprisonment with a seven-and-one-half-year period of parole ineligibility, and to a concurrent four-year term of imprisonment on each of counts two, three and four. The judge also imposed the appropriate penalty and assessment, and ordered restitution in the amount of $166,634.99.
On appeal, defendant raises the following contentions:
POINT ONE THE TOTALITY OF THE CIRCUMSTANCES DEMONSTRATE[S] THAT DEFENDANT'S CONFESSION WAS INVOLUNTARY.
POINT TWO THE STATE'S REPEATED REFERENCES TO SEARCH WARRANTS DENIED DEFENDANT A FAIR TRIAL.
POINT THREE THE TRIAL COURT ERRED BY PERMITTING DETECTIVE MAGOVERN TO RENDER AN EXPERT OPINION OUTSIDE THE AREA OF HIS EXPERTISE WHICH USURPED THE JURY'S FUNCTION.
POINT FOUR THE TRIAL COURT ERRED BY DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTIONS FOR JUDGMENT OF ACQUITTAL AND NEW TRIAL.
POINT FIVE THE TRIAL COURT ABUSED ITS DISCRETION IN FAILING TO EXCLUDE AS REMOTE FOR PURPOSES OF IMPEACHMENT DEFENDANT'S NINETEEN[-]YEAR [-]OLD CONVICTION.
POINT SIX THE TRIAL COURT'S INADEQUATE JURY INSTRUCTION AS TO THE ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS OF AGGRAVATED ARSON DENIED DEFENDANT A FAIR TRIAL.
POINT SEVEN DEFENDANT RECEIVED AN EXCESSIVE SENTENCE.
We reject these contentions and affirm.
We derive the following facts from the record. Defendant was unemployed, he and his wife were in debt, and they constantly argued about their financial situation. On March 17, 2009, defendant and his wife had an argument about refinancing his wife's condominium.*fn1 Shortly after the argument and after his wife left for work, defendant slashed the carpets, furniture and other items with a box cutter. Defendant then disappeared with all of his personal belongings, leaving the home in flames from a fire he started in the attic. Defendant fled to Missouri and then to Mexico. A warrant was issued in New Jersey for defendant's arrest; defendant was arrested in Houston, Texas on March 20, 2009, when he re-entered the country from Mexico.
The fire destroyed the condominium and extensively damaged the condominiums on both sides. An arson expert, Detective James Magovern from the Toms River Police Department, opined that the fire was intentionally set with combustible materials.
On March 22, 2009, Det. Magovern and Detective David Petracca from the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office interviewed defendant in the Houston jail where defendant had been incarcerated since his arrest on March 20. Before questioning began, defendant, a college graduate with prior experience with the criminal justice system, received and waived his Miranda*fn2 rights and gave an audio-taped statement. According to Det. Petracca, defendant was calm, relaxed, and pleasant during the interview, defendant did not appear tired or ask for food or drink, and no promises or threats were made to him. The interview lasted one hour.
After defendant denied starting the fire, Det. Petracca told him that he believed defendant was responsible. The detectives tried to commiserate with defendant and appear sympathetic in an effort to motivate defendant to tell the truth. In so doing, they alluded to the possibility that defendant could be charged with the attempted homicide of his neighbors. Defendant then confessed, provided details on how he set the fire, and indicated that he started the fire out of rage and anger toward his ...