On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Indictment No. 03-06-2275.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 12, 2012
Before Judges Grall and Simonelli.
A jury found defendant Sherman Artwell not guilty of purposely or knowingly killing Ronald Jackson, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1) to (2), or of conspiring with Zoranda Paulson and Jonathan Martin to murder him. N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2 and N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1) to (2). But the jurors determined that he was guilty of aggravated manslaughter, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4a; felony murder in the course of arson, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(3); aggravated arson, N.J.S.A. 2C:17-1a(1) to (2); conspiring with Paulson and Martin to commit aggravated arson, N.J.S.A. 2C:17-1a(1) to (2) and N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2; conspiring with them to commit hindering apprehension, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3b(1) and N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2; and two counts of hindering apprehension, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3b(1). His convictions and his consecutive sentences for felony murder and hindering apprehension were affirmed. State v. Artwell, No. A-5373-06 (App. Div. Mar. 31), certif. denied, 199 N.J. 518 (2009).
Defendant appeals from the denial of his petition for post-conviction relief, contending that the judge erred in concluding that his trial counsel provided reasonably competent representation. Because the judge's determination is supported by the record and consistent with controlling law, we affirm.
Ronald Jackson's body was found lying face up on the floor between the back and front seats of his car. The car was parked in a vacant lot between two abandoned cars. Jackson's car had been set afire, and the front of his body was burnt beyond recognition. He was identified because his hands had been bound with duct tape behind his back and were sufficiently intact to permit fingerprinting.
At the time of Jackson's death, he was involved in a relationship with Paulson. Although Jackson was supporting Paulson and her children, Paulson also maintained her relationship with defendant, who is the father of one of her children. A week or so before Jackson's death, Paulson told defendant and Martin, her cousin, that Jackson had raped and beaten her.
The three of them decided that Jackson should be "choked out" and set on fire. To secure Martin's assistance, Paulson told Martin he could live in her house if he helped.
Jackson visited Paulson's house on August 11, 2002. Defendant and Martin were there, but Martin left. After Martin left, Jackson jumped defendant from behind and swung at him, but defendant ducked and avoided that blow.*fn1 Jackson, who was holding a pen, then raised his arms as if he were going to stab defendant, and defendant put him in a chokehold. Defendant acknowledged that he did not release his hold until Jackson stopped moving. At that point, Jackson was "knocked out" but "snoring."
Defendant and Paulson proceeded to bind Jackson's hands and feet with duct tape and place duct tape over his mouth and nose. Because defendant was scratched during the struggle, they also cleaned Jackson's fingernails to remove any evidence that might link him to defendant. Planning to remove Jackson the following day, they put him in the basement. According to both defendant and Paulson, Jackson was still breathing when they left him alone in the basement.
With Jackson secured, Paulson and defendant went about their business. Paulson drove defendant home. En route, defendant became worried about the children they had left behind and Jackson freeing himself from the duct tape. After Paulson dropped defendant off, he called his son.
Paulson arrived home while defendant was talking to his son. She ate dinner with the children and when they were in bed checked on Jackson. Because Jackson was still breathing, she put more duct tape on his face from his nose to his eyebrows. She ...