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State of New Jersey v. Steven E. Wright

January 18, 2013

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
STEVEN E. WRIGHT, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Cumberland County, Indictment No. 06-08-00754.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued September 19, 2012

Before Judges Fisher, Waugh, and St. John.

On September 20, 2005, defendant Steven E. Wright shot and killed Carol Ann Bradford at the ShopRite in Vineland, where she was employed as a pharmacist. At trial, Wright unsuccessfully presented an insanity defense. N.J.S.A. 2C:4-1. The jury found him guilty of first-degree murder, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1) and (2) (count one); second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(a) (count two); and third-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b) (count three). After the jury determined that Wright acted "with depravity of mind," he was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole, to be served in a maximum security prison, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(b)(4)(c). He appeals both the conviction and the sentence. We affirm the conviction, but remand for resentencing consistent with this opinion.

I.

We discern the following facts and procedural history from the record on appeal.

A.

When Vineland Police Sergeant Christopher Landi arrived at the scene of the shooting, he saw Wright "casually pacing" in front of the ShopRite. As Landi approached the store, a bystander, Michael Tasker, pointed toward Wright. When Landi asked Wright "what happened," he replied, "I shot her." Landi then saw the victim's body on the floor inside the store. Landi placed Wright under arrest. He discovered a handwritten journal when he searched Wright incident to the arrest.

Vineland Detective Pedro Casiano observed two guns "neatly placed on the ground, side-by-side" adjacent to the body. After he advised Wright of his Miranda*fn1 rights, Casiano asked Wright whether "he knew where he was and what was going on." Wright responded that "he was at the ShopRite in Vineland and that he had just shot Carol." He also told Casiano that the victim was a friend. In fact, the two had no relationship other than that of pharmacist and customer.

Casiano and Landi took Wright to the police station. While en route, Wright made several unsolicited statements. According to Casiano, Wright stated that "he had been planning this for a long time," and wanted to shoot the victim in the head so she would not suffer, but "once he started shooting, he just kept on shooting." Wright said he planned to kill himself as well, but did not do so because the "loud noise" of the gun scared him.

At the police station, Casiano again advised Wright of his Miranda rights, and had him initial and sign a card acknowledging that he had been informed of his rights and understood them. Wright told Casiano that he had purchased two .38 caliber handguns in Philadelphia because he believed it would be easier to purchase them in Pennsylvania than in New Jersey. Wright's description of the guns he purchased matched the guns found at the scene.

B.

Wright was indicted on August 2, 2006. In addition to the charges on which he was convicted, he was charged with one count of fourth-degree stalking, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:12-10(b) (count four). That count was subsequently dismissed by consent. At the time of the indictment, Wright was subject to the death penalty pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(c), but that penalty had been repealed by the time of trial. L. 2007, c. 204.

Wright moved unsuccessfully to dismiss the indictment on the grounds that the State's presentation to the grand jury was defective. He also moved to suppress evidence, including both his statements to the police and evidence seized in connection with four search warrants. In addition, he moved for a change of venue, or the empanelling of a foreign jury, due to pretrial publicity. The trial judge took testimony and denied those motions in June 2007.

Wright was tried before a jury over eleven days during June and July 2010. Tasker testified that he was in the ShopRite parking lot when he heard noises that he initially thought were "electrical popping." As Tasker went toward the noises, he heard "a number of shots." Tasker saw Wright shoot towards the ground, then realized he was shooting at someone. According to Tasker, Wright was no more than ten feet from the victim when he shot her. Tasker saw Wright "raise[] his arms" and "[pace in] a circle" after he shot the victim.

Mary Pat Young-Pokrovsky testified that she and her husband were in front of the ShopRite when she heard a loud bang that sounded like a gun. After a second shot, they ran to a safer location. Young-Pokrovsky heard a scream after the second and each subsequent shot, except for the last one. She recalled hearing at least nine shots. Young-Pokrovsky witnessed Wright pacing in the store lobby after the shooting, with his hands over his face.

Vineland Police Detective Raymond Cavagnaro testified that he and Detective Shane Harris interviewed Wright at the police station. Prior to the questioning, Detective Sergeant Matthew Finley informed them that Wright had previously been advised of his Miranda rights, which he had waived. When Harris asked Wright whether he had been advised of his Miranda rights, Wright indicated that "he had been read his Miranda Rights and was willing to speak."

Wright told the officers that the victim was a friend and that he shot her. When asked why he shot the victim, Wright responded that "he had somewhat of an obsession, that he had to do it, that it was controlling him and he had no choice." Wright told the officers that he had met the victim a year-anda-half prior to the shooting, and that he spoke with her several times on the telephone while she was at work. He last spoke to her five or six weeks prior to the shooting.

When asked why he went to the store on the evening of the shooting, Wright responded that he would "rather not say." Cavagnaro testified that "[s]everal times during the course of the interview [Wright] mumbled that he had shot [the victim], that he [had] no choice, that he had an obsession . . . ." Nevertheless, according to Cavagnaro, Wright was "calm and polite," "cooperative," "cordial," and responsive. He described Wright as "absolutely" understanding the officers' questions.

Wright also told the officers that he did not speak with the victim at the scene, but that she screamed when he shot her. Wright asked whether the victim had been shot in the head, explaining that he did not want her to suffer and had intended to shoot her in the head. He told them that he fired all of the bullets in the five-shot revolver, but did not think he fired all of the bullets in the six-shot revolver.

In response to a question about why he shot the victim, Wright said his notes, which he had been keeping for approximately five months, would explain everything. He told the officers that he "had somewhat of an obsession going on for about a year and a half." He had seen the victim between fifteen and twenty times.

The officers paused the interrogation and attempted to contact a member of Wright's family, but were unsuccessful. They then asked Wright if he would provide a written or taped statement, but he declined to do so because he "didn't want his family to be mad."

Wright asked if the shooting had been recorded by the store's video surveillance system, explaining that he had wanted it to be "because he was afraid he would chicken out." Shortly thereafter, Wright told the officers that he had been diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive.

Cavagnaro testified at trial that he again asked Wright to provide a taped or written statement, and "at that point he said he would, but he wanted to speak to an attorney first." Defense counsel objected and moved for a mistrial. The judge denied the application, but gave a curative instruction in which he told the jury to disregard the testimony about Wright's invocation of his right to consult an attorney.

Harris testified that, after the interrogation, he and another officer transported Wright to the county jail. Although Harris did not ask Wright any questions during the drive, he heard Wright make statements to himself, such as "I hope she didn't suffer"; "I hope she died at the scene and not at the hospital"; "I doubt if she knows who shot her because I shot her in the back first"; and "I wanted her dead." Harris described Wright as calm, but said he was mumbling.

In the presence of the jury, Landi read excerpts from Wright's journal, which contained a timeline of the events leading up to the shooting. Wright wrote that he rented an apartment in Philadelphia so he could obtain a Pennsylvania driver's license because it was easier to purchase a gun in Pennsylvania than in New Jersey. Wright purchased furniture for the apartment "to make it look like someone lived there, in case anyone checked the room." At first, he had difficulty receiving mail at the apartment and he failed his eye examination, both of which delayed the issuance of his Pennsylvania driver's license. Wright wrote that after he obtained the license, he used it to purchase "the two guns."

According to his journal, Wright believed that he "had plenty of personal problems" with the victim, so he planned to shoot her and himself. Wright explained that he planned to shoot himself "so [he would not] have to go to jail for life."

Wright also wrote that the victim was "no innocent victim," and that "[o]utside of the pharmacy, she was the opposite of the goody-goody she presented to be." He perceived the victim to be "deeply disturbed," "a grave risk to our security," and believed she had "a very violent and threatening temper." Wright believed the victim's family should pay for some of the expenses of his plan because they did not know "exactly how sick she was." He wrote that the victim would call him as many as thirty to forty times a day, "screaming and crying."

Wright also wrote that he sang with the victim at her home. He claimed that the victim "beg[ged]" that he shoot her fifty times, decapitate her, then donate her brain to a medical school. Wright wrote that he told her it would be "overkill" to shoot her fifty times and "that ten times would be enough." He wrote that he wanted to donate all of the victim's organs because she told him that is what she wanted.

Wright's journal included "song" lyrics, which he claimed the victim wrote, such as:

Carol Ann is going to the graveyard, graveyard, graveyard, yes, yes, yes. Hospital, hospital, no, no, no. Carol Ann has no more brains, no more brains, no more brains, yes, yes, yes. Get me to the graveyard on time but please, please bypass the hospital station. and Carol Ann, Steven Wright, Carol Ann, Steven Wright, Carol Ann, Steven Wright, murder suicide, murder suicide, murder suicide.

In August 2005, Wright wrote that the victim was "extremely evil" and "getting worse and worse every day, every hour." In his final entry, dated September 12, Wright claimed that the victim was a prostitute and drug dealer who had tried to extort $1000 per month from him. He wrote that "[s]he should have been shot years [ago]."

C. Chase Blanchard, M.D., an expert in forensic pathology, testified about the autopsy. Blanchard told the jury that the victim had been shot ten times. She detailed each gunshot wound and concluded that three of them were individually fatal, as were all ten taken together.

Joel E. Morgan, Ph.D., an expert in clinical neuropsychology, testified for the defense. Morgan's opinions were based on his three evaluation sessions with Wright and the results from tests administered to Wright. Based on the test results, Morgan opined that Wright was not "malingering" or exaggerating his impairment.

Morgan noted Wright's "long history of psychiatric illness. He had been in and out of treatment for most of his life, had been on psychiatric psychotropic medications." In the 1970s, he took Thorazine, which was once used to treat schizophrenia and psychosis. He also attended counseling sessions. At the time of his examinations, Wright was on Haldol for psychosis, and Elavil and Cymbalta for depression. After the homicide, Wright twice spent time in a psychiatric hospital.

Morgan reviewed Wright's journal entries, and stated that they were "indicative of his psychiatric problems." In one of the tests conducted by Morgan, Wright's responses were "bizarre" and "consistent with his psychotic, psychiatric history."

Morgan also observed that Wright "exhibited delusional thinking concerning the [victim]. He admitted to having had an in-depth fantasy life about her . . . exhibiting chronic delusional thinking of events that weren't true." Wright told Morgan that since starting medication, he recognized that these were delusions.

Morgan opined that the fact that Wright's "motor skills were impaired bilaterally" was "very frank evidence of neuropsychological abnormality." Morgan observed that Wright exhibited a "pattern of decreased mental skills" consistent with a person who suffers from "a chronic long-term, life-long psychiatric illness such as schizophrenia." Because Wright did not report having suffered from a stroke, tumor, or other neurological trauma, Morgan concluded that Wright's diminished mental skills "must . . . be based on his psychiatric, chronic state."

Neil Blumberg, M.D., an expert in psychiatry and forensic psychiatry, also testified for the defense. Blumberg had performed a forensic evaluation of Wright and prepared two reports. At the trial, he detailed Wright's family history of mental illness, as well as Wright's history of mental-health treatment.

Blumberg addressed one of Wright's journal entries in which he discussed an incident in which the victim rejected his advances: "That was the day I decided to kill her for sure. She rejected me. . . . I planned a murder-suicide. I know I'd go to jail for life and I didn't want to go to jail. I knew it was illegal. . . . [B]ut I didn't think it was wrong." Blumberg opined that the entry showed that "he knows that he's committing a crime. He knows that he could go to jail indefinitely. But in his disturbed state of mind, he believes that this is a reasonable thing to do. And, in fact, it's the right thing to do . . . ."

When asked about the level of Wright's planning, Blumberg testified that "the overwhelming majority of people who have major mental illnesses are certainly capable of . . . acting in a deliberate way and thinking in a deliberate and purposeful way and planning." Blumberg opined that, with regard to knowing that his acts were wrong, "this is where [Wright's] mental illness impaired him. He was severely depressed. He was psychotic. He was out of touch with reality. He perceived this as a very reasonable course of action." Blumberg also believed that Wright's lack of effort to flee the scene or avoid arrest indicated "[t]hat he likely didn't perceive his actions as wrong, although illegal."

Blumberg diagnosed Wright with schizoaffective disorder depressive type, opioid dependence on hydrocodone, and schizoid personality disorder. He concluded that Wright "clearly . . . understood the nature and quality of what he was doing," but his "schizoaffective disorder depressive type prevented him from knowing right from wrong with respect to the crime."

On cross-examination, Blumberg acknowledged that it was Wright's purpose to shoot and kill the victim. He also acknowledged that Wright wrote lies in his journal entries about the victim in an attempt to have her share blame in his intended murder-suicide, and that he was capable of lying if he chose to lie.

Timothy Michals, M.D., an expert in psychiatry and forensic psychiatry, testified for the State. Michals agreed that Wright had a history of schizoaffective disorder and depression. He also diagnosed Wright with "mixed personality disorder with obsessive and borderline features," and a history of substance abuse related to hydrocodone.

Nevertheless, Michals concluded that Wright "knew the nature and quality of [his] actions," and "knew that those actions were wrong." In coming to this conclusion, Michals relied on his interview with Wright, as well as many of the same materials on which Blumberg had relied.

On July 22, the jury rejected the insanity defense and found Wright guilty. In a separate verdict, the jury found that the murder involved depravity of mind. Wright moved for a new trial and a judgment of acquittal. On October 15, the trial judge denied his motions and imposed the sentence described above. This appeal followed.

II.

Wright raises the following issues on appeal:

POINT I: THE AGGRAVATING FACTOR UNDER N.J.S.A. [2C:11-3(c)(4)(c)] SHOULD HAVE BEEN DISMISSED BASED ON THE GRAND JURY RECORD.

POINT II: SINCE THE GRAND JURY PRESENTATION WAS FUNDAMENTALLY UNFAIR, THE INDICTMENT SHOULD HAVE BEEN DISMISSED IN ITS ENTIRETY.

POINT III: THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN NOT GRANTING [WRIGHT'S] MOTION FOR A CHANGE OF VENUE OR FOR A FOREIGN JURY.

POINT IV: THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN NOT SUPPRESSING EVIDENCE OBTAINED PURSUANT TO SEARCH WARRANTS, AS THE SUPPORTING AFFIDAVITS WERE INVALID DUE TO MATERIAL OMISSION AND FAILED TO ESTABLISH PROBABLE CAUSE.

POINT V: [WRIGHT'S] STATEMENTS TO POLICE SHOULD HAVE BEEN SUPPRESSED.

POINT VI: AN UNDULY PREJUDICIAL PHOTOGRAPH SHOULD HAVE BEEN EXCLUDED BY THE TRIAL COURT.

POINT VII: THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN NOT GRANTING [WRIGHT'S] ORIGINAL MOTION AND MOTION FOR RECONSIDERATION TO LIMIT SENTENCING BASED UPON THE PROHIBITION OF THE EX POST FACTO APPLICATION OF N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3 FOLLOWING THE ABOLITION OF THE DEATH PENALTY IN NEW JERSEY.

POINT VIII: THE TRIAL COURT ABUSED ITS DISCRETION BY ENGAGING IN A PATTERN OF DENYING DEFENSE CHALLENGES FOR CAUSE DURING VOIR DIRE, WHICH REQUIRED [WRIGHT'S] USE OF NUMEROUS PEREMPTORY CHALLENGES, THUS UNDERMINING HIS RIGHT TO RECEIVE A FAIR TRIAL.

POINT IX: THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN DENYING [WRIGHT'S] MOTION FOR A MISTRIAL DURING AND AFTER TRIAL BASED ON DETECTIVE CAVAGNARO'S MISCONDUCT IN TESTIFYING ...


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