July 15, 2013
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff-Respondent,
SAI RAMESH MADDI, Defendant-Appellant.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 16, 2013
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Morris County, Indictment No. 01-08-0936.
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant (Steven M. Gilson, Designated Counsel, on the brief).
Frederick M. Knapp, Acting Morris County Prosecutor, attorney for respondent (Erin Smith Wisloff, Special Deputy Attorney General/Acting Assistant Prosecutor, on the brief).
Before Judges Sapp-Peterson and Nugent.
Defendant, Sai Ramesh Maddi, appeals from the denial of his first petition for post-conviction relief (PCR). He alleged ineffective assistance of counsel. The PCR judge denied the motion after conducting an evidentiary hearing. We affirm.
On July 25, 2001, defendant was charged with third-degree aggravated assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(7) (Count One); third-degree terroristic threats, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-3b (Counts Two and Four); second-degree aggravated assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(1) (Count Three); third-degree criminal restraint, N.J.S.A. 2C:13-2a and 2b (Counts Five and Six); and first-degree attempted murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-1a(3) and N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(1) (Count Seven). According to the evidence presented at trial, the charges stemmed from defendant's acts of threatening behavior towards and physical assaults upon his wife, who phoned police on June 4, 2001, reporting that defendant had assaulted her. The police responded and transported her to a hospital. The emergency room doctor who treated her opined that the force exerted upon her was sufficient to cause death. X-rays of the wife's back disclosed five broken vertebrae. At the time of her admission, she was also bleeding, and the doctor observed burn wounds which he could not definitively opine were self-inflicted or otherwise.
The jury convicted defendant of all counts except Count Two, terroristic threats. On that charge, the jury found defendant guilty of the lesser-included offense of harassment.
On July 12, 2005, the court imposed a fifteen-year term of imprisonment with a seven-and-one-half-year period of parole ineligibility on the attempted murder conviction, and concurrent custodial terms on all of the remaining offenses. On direct appeal, we affirmed defendant's convictions and the sentences imposed on each offense. State v. Maddi, No. A-0225-05T2 (App. Div. February 13, 2008). On May 2, 2008, the Supreme Court denied defendant's petition for certification. State v. Maddi, 195 N.J. 519 (2008).
Defendant filed his PCR petition on June 23, 2008. PCR counsel was assigned to represent him and counsel filed a brief on defendant's behalf. On April 16, 2009, Judge Thomas V. Manahan granted defendant an evidentiary hearing, after concluding that it was difficult to resolve defendant's claims given the "out-of-court communications" that formed the basis for defendant's petition. The court conducted an evidentiary hearing over a two-day period on November 12, 2009 and June 14, 2010. Defendant and trial counsel were the only two witnesses to participate in the hearing.
Defendant testified that trial counsel rarely met with him prior to trial and, when he did so, treated him in a disdainful manner. Defendant acknowledged there had been a number of plea offers extended to him but claimed that trial counsel's attitude towards accepting the plea offers or going to trial was either dismissive or conveyed in an angry manner, with the repeated question: "What's your defense?" Trial counsel testified that defendant was never receptive to the plea offers and that defendant's brother was always present during their meetings. He explained that the brother had significant influence over defendant and that the brother consistently rejected the plea offers. He acknowledged that his relationship with defendant became hostile and admitted that he pressed defendant about his defense by asking, "What's the defense?"
Judge Manahan issued a written opinion denying defendant's petition. The judge found that defendant was initially represented by private counsel for more than two years before his trial counsel was assigned to represent him. He noted that during the two-year period that defendant was being represented by private counsel, numerous plea offers, options and potential consequences were discussed with him, but defendant exhibited no inclination towards pleading guilty. The judge additionally found that defendant's inclination to proceed to trial carried over to trial counsel. He was also satisfied that the attorneys representing defendant before trial counsel took over the case kept defendant "well-informed" and that defendant had "full knowledge of the status and particulars of his case." Consequently, the judge concluded that by the time trial counsel commenced his representation, there was little left to discuss. Moreover, the judge was convinced that even if he were to find there had been "some lack of communication" between defendant and trial counsel, "that lack of communication clearly did not impact upon [defendant's] understanding of the seriousness of the charges, the proofs that would be presented at trial by the State, and his opportunity to resolve these charges by plea."
Judge Manahan further noted the record revealed that trial counsel moved, albeit unsuccessfully, to dismiss the indictment, to exclude the statement defendant gave to the police, and to bar the testimony of the emergency room doctor. Finally, the judge found that trial counsel's cross-examination of the State's expert witness was effective. Quoting State v. Fritz, 105 N.J. 42, 53 (1987), he concluded that trial counsel displayed "'reasonable competence' in all aspects of his representation of [defendant]." This appeal ensued.
On appeal, defendant argues:
DEFENDANT'S CONVICTIONS MUST BE REVERSED BECAUSE HE WAS DENIED EFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL DUE TO INADEQUATE COMMUNICATION WITH TRIAL COUNSEL.
Based on our review of the record and applicable law, we are not persuaded by any of defendant's arguments and affirm substantially for the reasons stated by Judge Manahan in his August 11, 2010 written opinion. We add the following comments.
The test for ineffective assistance of counsel was formulated in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984), and adopted by our Supreme Court in Fritz, supra, 105 N.J. at 42. To establish a deprivation of the Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel, a defendant must satisfy the following two-pronged Strickland/Fritz test: (1) first, that counsel's performance was deficient and he or she made errors that were so serious that counsel was not functioning effectively as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution; and (2) second, that there exists a "reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceedings would have been different." Strickland, supra, 466 U.S. at 687-88, 694, 104 S.Ct. at 2064, 2068, 80 L.Ed.2d at 693, 698. In making that determination, a defendant must overcome a strong presumption that counsel rendered reasonable professional assistance. State v. Parker, 212 N.J. 269, 279 (2012). If a defendant establishes one prong of this test, but not the other, the petition for PCR must fail. Id . at 279-80. Thus, both prongs of the Strickland/Fritz test must be satisfied before post-conviction relief may be granted. Strickland, supra, 466 U.S. at 687-88, 694, 104 S.Ct. at 2064, 2068, 80 L.Ed.2d at 693, 698.
We apply the Strickland standard and review the reasonableness of counsel's assistance with "'a heavy measure of deference to counsel's judgments'" State v Martini 160 N.J. 248 266 (1999) (quoting Strickland supra 466 U.S. at 691104 S.Ct. at 2066 80 L.Ed.2d at 695) Judge Manahan applied this standard of review and credited trial counsel's testimony concerning the trial and pre-trial discussions with defendant over the plea offers There is ample basis in the record to support Judge Manahan's conclusion that trial counsel's "tactical decisions and any perceptible errors in his representation had no adverse impact upon the result of [defendant's] trial" Moreover the record also supports the judge's additional conclusion that defendant's "decision to reject the plea offers and proceed to trial while in hindsight mistaken was nevertheless informed" We discern no basis to disagree with these conclusions.