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State of New Jersey v. Stacy Hall

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


July 6, 2012

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
STACY HALL, A/K/A STACEY HALL, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County, Indictment No. 09-10-1820.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION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 wife; however, defendant stated he was only hoping to cause smoke damage. Defendant later filed a motion to suppress the statement.

Following a Miranda hearing, the trial judge, who had listened to the audio-taped statement and Det. Petracca's testimony, denied the motion. The judge found that defendant's answers to the detectives' questions were not rushed, no voices were raised, defendant's speech was coherent, and the entire interview was maintained at a conversational level. Looking at the totality of the circumstances, including defendant's characteristics and the nature of the interrogation, the judge concluded that the State had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant understood and knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently waived his Miranda rights before he gave his statement.

I.

Defendant contends in Point One that the judge abused his discretion in denying the motion to suppress. He argues that he did not make the statement voluntarily because the detectives psychologically coerced him to confess by alluding to the possibility that he could be charged with attempted homicide.

Our review of a trial judge's decision on a motion to suppress is limited. State v. Robinson, 200 N.J. 1, 15 (2009). In reviewing a motion to suppress evidence, we "'must uphold the factual findings underlying the trial court's decision so long as those findings are supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record.'" Ibid. (quoting State v. Elders, 192 N.J. 224, 243 (2007)). Additionally, we afford deference to a trial judge's findings "which are substantially influenced by [the judge's] opportunity to hear and see the witnesses and to have the 'feel' of the case, which a reviewing court cannot enjoy." State v. Davila, 203 N.J. 97, 109-10 (2010) (internal quotation omitted).

When we are satisfied that the findings of the trial court could reasonably have been reached on the record, "[our] task is complete and [we] should not disturb the result, even though [we have] the feeling [we] might have reached a different conclusion were [we] the trial tribunal." State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 162 (1964). Nevertheless, "if the trial court's findings are so clearly mistaken 'that the interests of justice demand intervention and correction,' then [we] should review 'the record as if [we] were deciding the matter at inception and make [our] own findings and conclusions.'" State v. Mann, 203 N.J. 328, 337 (2010) (quoting Johnson, supra, 42 N.J. at 162). "[We] owe[] no deference to the trial court in deciding matters of law. When a question of law is at stake, [we] must apply the law as [we] understand[] it." Ibid. (citations omitted).

A defendant's waiver of Miranda rights must be made voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently. State v. Bey, 112 N.J. 123, 134 (1988). In order to survive a motion to suppress a statement on Miranda grounds, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant provided a voluntary and uncoerced waiver of his right to remain silent. State v. Knight, 183 N.J. 449, 462 (2005). In determining whether a statement is voluntary, courts consider the totality of the circumstances, including the characteristics of the accused and the details of the interrogation. Ibid.; Bey, supra, 112 N.J. at 134-35. "Relevant factors include the defendant's age, education, intelligence, advice concerning his constitutional rights, [the] length of detention, . . . the nature of the questioning," Bey, supra, 112 N.J. at 135, the defendant's "previous encounters with law enforcement, and the period of time between [the] 'administration of the [Miranda] warnings and the volunteered statement[,]'" Knight, supra, 183 N.J. at 463 (last alteration in original) (citation omitted).

"An involuntary confession can result from psychological as well as physical coercion[,]" but the "use of a psychologically-oriented technique during questioning is not inherently coercive." State v. Galloway, 133 N.J. 631, 654 (1993). Moreover, "[t]he fact that an investigative officer is friendly, sympathetic, and encourages the trust of the defendant to give a statement ordinarily would not render the confession involuntary." State v. DiFrisco, 118 N.J. 253, 257 (1990). "Rather, the inquiry must be whether an investigator's 'statements were so manipulative or coercive that they deprived [defendant] of his ability to make an unconstrained, autonomous decision to confess.'" Ibid. (quoting Miller v. Fenton, 796 F.2d 598, 605 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 989, 107 S. Ct. 585, 93 L. Ed. 2d 587 (1986)). Even a lie by a police officer to a defendant does not, by itself, render a confession coerced, because the focus is on "whether the person's decision to confess results from a change of mind rather than from an overbearing of the suspect's will." Galloway, supra, 133 N.J. at 655.

We are satisfied that the detectives' statements to defendant did not reach the level of overbearing defendant's will and coercing a confession. The detectives' statements were clearly made in the context of their attempts to appear sympathetic and understanding to defendant. In the absence of "very substantial" psychological pressure by detectives, we cannot conclude that defendant's will had been overborne. See Galloway, supra, 133 N.J. at 656. Based on the totality of the circumstances, there was sufficient credible evidence in the record supporting the judge's denial of defendant's motion to suppress.

II.

Defendant contends for the first time on appeal in Point Two that he was denied a fair trial by Det. Magovern's repeated references during his trial testimony to the arrest warrant and a "fugitive warrant." We review this contention for plain error, and will reverse only if the error was "clearly capable of producing an unjust result." R. 2:10-2; State v. Castagna, 187 N.J. 293, 312 (2006); State v. Torres, 183 N.J. 554, 564 (2005); State v. Macon, 57 N.J. 325, 336-37 (1971). We must determine that there is a real possibility that the error led to an unjust result, that is, "one sufficient to raise a reasonable doubt as to whether [it] led the jury to a result it otherwise might not have reached." Macon, supra, 57 N.J. at 336.

Prior to the challenged testimony, the jury heard evidence that defendant was at home shortly before the fire was reported but could not be located thereafter; there was no indication that anyone had broken into the home; the security alarm had been set from the inside; the circuit breakers connected to the upstairs smoke detectors were turned off; all of defendant's belongings, including his sports memorabilia, had been removed from the home prior to the fire; the fire was intentionally set; and the police attempted to reach defendant but were unable to locate him throughout their investigation. Det. Magovern also testified that when he applied for the arrest warrant, he did not know defendant's whereabouts at that time.

Det. Magovern likely presented all of this evidence to the judge when he sought the arrest warrant for defendant. His trial testimony did not imply that the judge who issued the warrant heard evidence that the jury did not hear. See State v. McDonough, 337 N.J. Super. 27, 34 (App. Div.) certif. denied, 169 N.J. 605 (2001). Accordingly, we conclude that Det. Magovern's reference to an arrest warrant did not have the capacity to mislead the jury. See State v. Milton, 255 N.J. Super. 514, 519-20 (App. Div. 1992).

We also conclude there was no plain error in Det. Magovern's one reference to the "fugitive warrant" on direct examination during a brief exchange about the circumstances of defendant's arrest. Defense counsel had also mentioned the "fugitive warrant" on Det. Magovern's cross-examination in order to show the jury that defendant had been arrested in Houston solely on a warrant issued as a result of this crime, and there were no other outstanding warrants against defendant at the time of his arrest. Thus, there was no error, let alone plain error, because mention of the "fugitive warrant" actually helped defendant.

III.

Defendant contends in Point Three that the judge erred by permitting Det. Magovern to use the word "destroy" when testifying about the damage to the home and defendant's purpose in starting the fire. Defendant argues that this testimony was beyond the detective's area of expertise and usurped the jury's function.

The challenged testimony occurred on cross-examination, and there was no objection. Thus, if there was error, it was invited. See State v. Corsaro, 107 N.J. 339, 345 (1987).

In any event, the testimony was not clearly capable of producing an unjust result. The judge twice gave a limiting instruction regarding the word "destroy," which defense counsel said was satisfactory. In addition, the testimony characterized defendant's conduct based on the evidence, and thus, was permissible within the scope of the detective's expert opinion. See State v. Papasavvas, 163 N.J. 565, 612-13 (2000); see also State v. Odom, 116 N.J. 65, 79 (1989) (allowing police officer to testify, based on his expertise, that defendant's possession of drugs was for the purpose of distribution).

IV.

Defendant contends in Point Four that the judge erred in denying his motions for judgment of acquittal at the close of the State's case, judgment of acquittal n.o.v, and a new trial. He argues that the evidence failed to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that he acted with the purpose to destroy the condominium.

We use the same standard as the trial judge in reviewing a motion for judgment of acquittal pursuant to Rule 3:18-1. State v. Bunch, 180 N.J. 534, 548-49 (2004). We must determine whether, viewing the State's evidence in its entirety, be that evidence direct or circumstantial, and giving the State the benefit of all its favorable testimony as well as all of the favorable inferences which reasonably could be drawn therefrom, a reasonable jury could find guilt of the charge beyond a reasonable doubt. [State v. Reyes, 50 N.J. 454, 459 (1967).]

Under Rule 3:18-1, the court "is not concerned with the worth, nature or extent (beyond a scintilla) of the evidence, but only with its existence, viewed most favorably to the State." State v. Muniz, 150 N.J. Super. 436, 440 (App. Div. 1977), certif. denied, 77 N.J. 473 (1978). "If the evidence satisfies that standard, the motion must be denied." State v. Spivey, 179 N.J. 229, 236 (2004).

The standard for deciding a Rule 3:18-2 motion for judgment of acquittal n.o.v. is the same as that used to decide a motion for acquittal made at the end of the State's case. See State v. Brooks, 366 N.J. Super. 447, 453 (App. Div. 2004). On appeal, we apply the same standard. State v. Kittrell, 145 N.J. 112, 130 (1996).

"[A] motion for a new trial is addressed to the sound discretion of the trial judge, and the exercise of that discretion will not be interfered with on appeal unless a clear abuse has been shown." State v. Russo, 333 N.J. Super. 119, 137 (App. Div. 2000).

A person is guilty of second-degree aggravated arson "if he starts a fire or causes an explosion, whether on his own property or another's . . . [w]ith the purpose of destroying a building or structure of another." N.J.S.A. 2C:17-1a(2).

A person acts purposely with respect to the nature of his conduct or a result thereof if it is his conscious object to engage in conduct of that nature or to cause such a result. A person acts purposely with respect to attendant circumstances if he is aware of the existence of such circumstances or he believes or hopes that they exist. [N.J.S.A. 2C:2-2b(1).]

"In criminal prosecutions, proof of a defendant's mental state often must be inferred from the circumstances and the jury must make its determination by both the act and by the surrounding circumstances." State v. Williams, 190 N.J. 114, 124 (2007) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

We discern no error in the denial of defendant's motions. In addition to defendant's confession, the jury heard evidence that defendant was at home shortly before the fire was reported but could not be located thereafter, there was no indication that anyone had broken into the home, the security alarm had been set from the inside, the circuit breakers connected to the upstairs smoke detectors were turned off, all of defendant's belongings, including his sports memorabilia, had been removed from the home prior to the fire, the fire was intentionally set, defendant slashed furniture and other items in the home before setting the fire, and defendant attempted to start a fire downstairs in addition to the one he started in the attic. This evidence was more than sufficient to allow the jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that it was defendant's purpose to destroy the condominium.

V.

Defendant contends in Point Five that the judge erred in denying his motion to exclude based on remoteness the prosecutor's use of a prior 1991 conviction for impeachment purposes. We disagree.

Defendant was convicted in 1991 in a federal district court in New York for mail fraud. This crime would be considered a second-degree offense in New Jersey because the amount exceeded $75,000. Defendant was also convicted in 2006 in Maryland for what would be considered a third-degree aggravated assault offense in New Jersey. In denying the motion, the judge concluded that the 1991 conviction was a serious offense that was highly probative on the issue of defendant's credibility. He also found that the 2006 Maryland conviction was an intervening offense, and defendant committed the present offense in 2009. This shows a continuing course of criminality over time. We review this decision under an abuse-of-discretion standard. State v. Sands, 76 N.J. 127, 144 (1978).

A witness's credibility may be impeached by the admission of evidence of that witness's prior convictions. N.J.R.E. 609. However, such evidence may be "excluded by the judge as remote or for other causes." Ibid. To determine whether a prior conviction should be admissible, "[t]he trial court must balance the lapse of time and the nature of the crime to determine whether the relevance with respect to credibility outweighs the prejudicial effect to the defendant." State v. Murphy, 412 N.J. Super. 553, 564 (App. Div.) (internal quotation omitted), certif. denied, 203 N.J. 440 (2010). "Serious crimes, including those involving lack of veracity, dishonesty or fraud, should be considered as having a weightier effect than, for example, a conviction of death by reckless driving." Sands, supra, 76 N.J. at 144. Remoteness is not determined solely by the passage of time, and in fact no bright-line rule exists for a judge to follow when determining whether a conviction is too remote to be admissible. Murphy, supra, 412 N.J. Super. at 564. Moreover, "[i]f a person has been convicted of a series of crimes through the years, then conviction of the earliest crime, although committed many years before, as well as intervening convictions, should be admissible." Sands, supra, 76 N.J. at 145. This is because "[a] jury has the right to weigh whether one who repeatedly refuses to comply with society's rules is more likely to ignore the oath requiring veracity on the witness stand than a law abiding citizen." Ibid.

We discern no abuse of discretion here. Defendant's 1991 conviction for mail fraud involves a serious crime of fraud and dishonesty, which bears directly on his credibility, and his 2006 conviction indicates a pattern of criminal conduct. We are satisfied that the motion was properly denied.

VI.

For the first time on appeal defendant challenges the aggravated arson jury instruction in Point Six, arguing that the judge erred by failing to properly define the word "destroy." We review this contention for plain error. State v. Hock, 54 N.J. 526, 538 (1969), cert. denied, 399 U.S. 930, 90 S. Ct. 2254, 26 L. Ed. 2d 797 (1970).

Throughout the trial, the parties focused on whether defendant acted with a purpose to "destroy" the condominium. Whether he had this purpose would be the difference between second-degree aggravated arson and third-degree arson. Compare N.J.S.A. 2C:17-1a(2), b(2). Neither N.J.S.A. 2C:17-1a(2), nor Model Jury Charge (Criminal), "Aggravated Arson" (2003), contained a definition of "destroy." During summations, the prosecutor said that "destroy" means to "render [something] useless" or to "take the intended purpose of something and ruin it."*fn3

The judge instructed the jury that "the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that at the time the defendant started the fire his purpose was to destroy [the condominium]." During deliberations, the jury expressed difficulty determining the difference between "damage" and "destroy." With counsels' consent, the judge instructed the jury to give the words their ordinary and common meanings. This was proper. See State v. Afanador, 134 N.J. 162, 171 (1993) (holding that "[a]bsent any explicit indications of special meanings, the words used in a statute carry their ordinary and well-understood meanings"); N.J.S.A. 1:1-1 (directing that "words and phrases [in a statute] shall be read and construed with their context, and shall, unless inconsistent with the manifest intent of the legislature or unless another or different meaning is expressly indicated, be given their generally accepted meaning"); see also State v. Scher, 278 N.J. Super. 249, 270-71 (App. Div. 1994) (finding that the court did not err in instructing the jury that it should rely on its "good common sense" and its "understanding of the English language" in defining the term "casual drinking" and noting that the defendant had "expressed his general satisfaction with the judge's principal charge" and therefore could not condemn it as error on appeal), certif. denied, 140 N.J. 276 (1995); State v. Rombolo, 91 N.J.L. 560, 563 (E. & A. 1918) (noting that the trial judge "is not required to give to the jury definitions or synonyms of common English words used in a statute in their ordinary meaning"). Accordingly, we conclude that there was no error, let alone plain error, in the judge's instruction.

VII.

Defendant challenges his sentence in Point Seven, arguing that the judge improperly found aggravating factors N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1a(1), "[t]he nature and circumstances of the offense, and the role of the actor therein, including whether or not it was committed in an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner," and N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1a(2), "[t]he gravity and seriousness of harm inflicted on the victim[.]"

In finding and applying aggravating factor one, the judge determined the crime that was committed was "depraved." He stated that "something . . . snapped inside [defendant]" on the day of the fire, which caused him to use a box cutter to slash all of the couple's belongings; when that did not "satiate his anger and rage," defendant "continued on" by first starting a fire in the attic and then attempting to start a fire on the couch. The judge noted that defendant "is not somebody that was in the [throes] of a heroin addiction, cocaine addiction, someone who was bipolar, schizophrenic[,]" and that defendant's anger had gotten to a point that was "scary."

In finding and applying aggravating factor two, the judge considered the psychological impact the fire had on defendant's wife and neighbors. He noted that the condominiums were people's homes containing their "livelihood[s]" and "memory chest[s]" and defendant's wife told the judge that the fire was a "life changing experience" that had "shaken [her] sense of security."

Our review of a sentence is limited. State v. Miller, 205 N.J. 109, 127 (2011). Our basic responsibility is to assure that the aggravating and mitigating factors the trial judge found are supported by competent, credible evidence in the record. Ibid.; State v. Bieniek, 200 N.J. 601, 608 (2010). As directed by the Court, we must (1) "require that an exercise of discretion be based upon findings of fact that are grounded in competent, reasonably credible evidence[;]" (2) "require that the factfinder apply correct legal principles in exercising its discretion[;]" and (3) "modify sentences [only] when the application of the facts to the law is such a clear error of judgment that it shocks the judicial conscience." State v. Roth, 95 N.J. 334, 363-64 (1984). We also review an extended-term sentence under an abuse-of-discretion standard. State v. Bauman, 298 N.J. Super. 176, 211 (App. Div., cert. denied, 150 N.J. 25 (1997).

Applying these standards, we discern no error in defendant's sentence. There is no dispute that defendant was eligible for an extended-term sentence based on his prior felony convictions. In addition, the record amply supports the application of aggravating factors one and two, the sentence imposed was within the statutory guidelines, and it does not shock our judicial conscience.

Affirmed.


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