August 6, 2012
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
MATTHEW L. STEFFEN, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Atlantic County, Indictment No. 09-11-2753.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued June 6, 2012
Before Judges Cuff and Lihotz.
Defendant Matthew L. Steffen appeals from a judgment of conviction for third-degree aggravated assault with significant bodily injury, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(7), entered following a bench trial. During trial, the State presented testimony from the victim, Billie Lee Foster, the responding and investigating police officers, and the physician who treated Foster's injuries on the date of the incident, July 11, 2009. Defendant testified on his own behalf, arguing self-defense, and presented proof of injuries he received at the hands of Foster. Defendant additionally presented fact witnesses, including: a records custodian, his older sister, and character witnesses.
Following written post-trial submissions, Judge Bernard E. DeLury, Jr. issued an oral opinion, recounting the factual testimony regarding the violent interaction, resulting in physical injury to both Foster and defendant. Although noting Foster and defendant's conflicting testimony regarding the cause of the physical altercation, the trial judge found the evidence regarding Foster's injuries was uncontroverted. Judge DeLury found the evidence insufficient to support the State's contention defendant had purposely and knowingly caused serious bodily injury, finding instead that the evidence showed, beyond a reasonable doubt, defendant acted "recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life" resulting in "the probability and not the mere possibility of significant bodily injury."
Further, the judge determined the State proved beyond a reasonable doubt defendant's claim of self-defense was "untrue[,]" and under either party's characterization of events, defendant was "the initial aggressor" of the violent conduct. The judge also determined "the amount of force used by the defendant was unreasonably disproportionate to whatever he was trying to fend against[,] given the relative size and strength of . . . defendant and . . . Foster." Finally, the judge found defendant's assertion of retreat inapplicable.
Defendant was convicted of third-degree aggravated assault with significant bodily injury, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(7), a lesser-included offense to the charged second-degree aggravated assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(1). Further, he was acquitted of the remaining more serious charges.*fn1 Judge DeLury sentenced defendant to three years probation and required he refrain from contact with Foster, maintain all probation appointments, submit random drug and alcohol screenings, obtain full-time employment or enroll in school, and obtain mental health counseling.
On appeal, defendant argues:
THE LOWER COURT ERRED IN FINDING DEFENDANT GUILTY OF AGGRAVATED ASSAULT PURSUANT TO N.J.S.[A.] 2C:12-1B(7) WHEN THERE WAS NO EVIDENCE THAT THE VICTIM EVER LOST THE FUNCTION OF ANY BODILY MEMBER OR ORGAN OR SUFFERED THE TEMPORARY LOSS OF ANY OF HER FIVE SENSES.
THE LOWER COURT ERRED IN FINDING THE DEFENDANT GUILTY OF AGGRAVATED ASSAULT BECAUSE THE VERDICT WAS AGAINST THE WEIGHT OF THE EVIDENCE AND WAS BASED ON A THEORY NOT ADVANCED BY THE STATE.
THE VERDICT OF THE LOWER COURT WAS IMPERMISSIBLY INCONSISTENT.
THE LOWER COURT ERRED IN FINDING THE EVIDENCE DID NOT SUPPORT THE DEFENSE OF SELF DEFENSE.
We have considered each of these arguments in light of the record and applicable law. Defendant's contention the verdict is against the weight of the evidence and challenges to the trial judge's factual determinations are rejected as lacking sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(2). We determine the record contains sufficient credible evidence to sustain the Law Division's factual findings of defendant's guilt, beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. Barone, 147 N.J. 599, 615 (1997); State v. Avena, 281 N.J. Super. 327, 333 (App. Div. 1995). We defer to those findings particularly as they "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. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 161 (1964). See also State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 471 (1999). Moreover, we find no basis to support an assertion that the trial judge's findings were clearly mistaken or unwarranted such that "'the interests of justice demand intervention and correction[.]'" Locurto, supra, 157 N.J. at 471 (quoting Johnson, supra, 42 N.J. at 162).
The State proved beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant's recklessness caused significant bodily injury to Foster, under the circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life, as required by N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(7). Defendant admitted Foster struck him in the head with a vase during the physical altercation, to which he responded by using a military maneuver called a "choke slam" to subdue her. Foster sought emergency medical treatment for her injuries.
The State's evidence, including photographs, expert medical testimony, and the statements of Foster and the investigating officers, unequivocally showed that as a result of defendant's actions, Foster was knocked unconscious, suffered bruising throughout her body, and developed a hematoma, a collection of blood and more posterior to the eye, causing the eye bulge from its socket for ninety days. The judge's reasonable inference from these facts that Foster suffered a temporary loss of sight is logical and properly supported. See State v. Samuels, 189 N.J. 236, 246 (2007) ("'[T]here are no legal rules as to what inferences may be drawn. The question is one of logic and common sense.'" (quoting State v. Powell, 84 N.J. 305, 314 (1980))); State v. Stull, 403 N.J. Super. 501, 506 (App. Div. 2008) ("When there is no direct testimony, the fact-finder may rely solely on inferences available from the proofs.").
We also reject defendant's contention the verdict finding him guilty of aggravated assault, but not guilty of all other charges was impermissibly inconsistent. R. 2:11-3(e)(2).
Finally, we find no error in the trial judge's rejection of
defendant's claim of self-defense, N.J.S.A. 2C:3-4a,*fn2
after finding the "choke slam" was an unreasonably
disproportionate response to Foster's conduct, in light of all the
other facts and circumstances, such as defendant's size and prior
military training. See State v. Abbott, 36 N.J. 63, 69 (1961)
("Self-defense is measured against necessity."); State v. Bryant, 288
N.J. Super. 27, 36-37 (App. Div.) (holding an actor can only use
the amount of force which he reasonably believes necessary to repel
the unlawful force against him), certif. denied, 144 N.J. 589 (1996).