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State v. Lawrence

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

August 12, 2013

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
ERNEST LAWRENCE, Defendant-Appellant.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted September 20, 2012.

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Indictment No. 08-10-3241.

Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant (Jay L. Wilensky, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, of counsel and on the briefs).

Jeffrey S. Chiesa, Attorney General, attorney for respondent (Joseph Glyn, Deputy Attorney General, of counsel and on the briefs).

Appellant filed a pro se supplemental brief.

Before Judges Axelrad, Sapp-Peterson and Nugent.

PER CURIAM.

A jury found defendant, Ernest Lawrence, guilty of murder, two weapons offenses, and hindering his own prosecution; and a judge sentenced him to an aggregate forty-five year prison term subject to the No Early Release Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2 (NERA). Defendant contends he is entitled to a new trial because: two statements he gave to law enforcement authorities should have been suppressed; he was unduly prejudiced when the prosecutor asked a witness whether she knew if defendant had ever struck the victim; the court admitted prior bad acts evidence without giving a proper limiting instruction; the court erred in its instruction to the jury about defendant's attempt to leave the country; and the prosecutor made inflammatory and unduly prejudicial remarks in her opening statement and summation. Defendant also contends that his sentence is excessive. Having considered defendant's arguments in light of the record and controlling law, we remand for correction of the judgment of conviction to reflect appropriate jail credits. In all other respects, we affirm the judgment of conviction.

I.

The State's trial evidence established that early on the morning of January 8, 2008, in the basement of a Camden row home where defendant lived with nineteen-year old Jennifer Lane and their two small children, he stabbed Lane seventeen times with a paring knife. Lane staggered upstairs to the first floor where she collapsed and died. Defendant hurried upstairs and exited the row home, dropping the paring knife by the front door as he left. The police found defendant a short distance away, suffering from five stab wounds to his chest. At the time, the police did not know his wounds were self-inflicted.

Defendant was admitted to Cooper Hospital where he underwent surgery for a collapsed lung. The next day, Camden County Prosecutor's Investigator John Greer and Camden City Detective Isidoro Reyes questioned defendant at the hospital. When the officers first began to question defendant, they did not inform him of his Miranda[1] rights, but after he told them that Lane had stabbed him and he had stabbed Lane, they informed him of his rights, which he waived. Defendant told Investigator Greer that he and Lane stabbed each other during an argument, but he did not know who stabbed the other first. Denying that he would ever cut himself, defendant told Investigator Greer that all of his wounds had been inflicted by Lane. Defendant also said that after he got hit a couple of times, he "pulled" the knife and began swinging at her. After stabbing Lane, defendant left the row home to calm down. Unaware of the extent of his wounds, he intended to return, but he passed out.

Later the same day, Investigator Greer returned to the hospital to photograph defendant's hands because defendant had claimed he and Lane were stabbing each other, but he had no defensive wounds on his hands. Defendant consented, and Investigator Greer photographed his hands.

The police did not charge defendant with Lane's murder until January 22, 2008. They were unable to apprehend him for two days. On January 24, 2008, at five o'clock in the morning, defendant purchased a round-trip ticket for a flight from Atlantic City to Kingston, Jamaica with a stop in Florida. Florida authorities arrested defendant when his plane landed in Fort Lauderdale. The next day, Investigator Greer and Detective Reyes travelled to Florida and questioned defendant a second time. Defendant told Investigator Greer that throughout the day and night leading up to the homicide, Lane "kept leaving every minute with a friend of hers" who defendant characterized as her "Ex." When Lane returned after one visit with her friend, defendant argued with her about taking care of the children, who were hungry. According to defendant, the argument escalated and "we [got] stabbed." Defendant said, "I got stabbed, she got stabbed and that's all I can remember from there."

Defendant blamed Naquia Rollins, a friend with whom Lane previously had an intimate relationship, for repeatedly interfering with, and jeopardizing, his relationship with Lane. Nevertheless, defendant did not believe Lane had resumed her affair with Rollins. Defendant eventually admitted that he stabbed Lane and then stabbed himself.

According to Rollins and the first and second floor residents of the row home where defendant lived, defendant had previously threatened Lane. Rollins testified about the threat defendant made the afternoon before he stabbed Lane. On the day before Lane's death, Rollins visited Lane for about twenty minutes early in the day, then returned later and drove Lane to a grocery store to get some milk. When they returned to the row home, defendant walked up to the van Rollins was driving and accused Rollins of lying to him on a previous occasion. According to Rollins, defendant said "he didn't like what was going on and that he would make sure that I never see her again and there was nothing nobody can do about it."

Rollins and Lane drove away in the van, watched television at Lane's aunt's house, then returned to Lane's row home at approximately 9:45 p.m. While they talked inside the van, defendant came out of the row home, unbuckled Lane's seatbelt, and "grabbed her out of the car." Rollins drove away. That was the last time Rollins saw Lane alive.

James Glover, who lived on the second floor of the row home, was sitting on the front porch when defendant returned from work. Later that evening, a white van "pulled up" with Lane in the passenger seat. Defendant emerged from the row home, walked to the white van, said something to Lane, then returned to the porch. He said to Glover, "I'm gonna kill that girl." He then waited about two minutes, and went into the house.

Kimell Young, who owned the row home and lived on the first floor, talked to defendant while he was sitting on the front steps of the home the day before Lane's death. Lane was getting into Rollins' white van, and defendant was angry. Defendant told Young, "if [I] can't have her, nobody is gonna have her. I hate that bitch." Young also testified that on a previous occasion defendant said the only way Lane would listen to him was if he shook her up, meaning that he had to push her around.

Defendant called one witness at trial, his sister. She testified that when defendant was discharged from the hospital he was so physically debilitated and mentally depressed that she could not care for him, so she suggested he return to their family in Jamaica where he could be properly cared for during his recuperation.

A Camden County grand jury charged defendant in an indictment with first-degree murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1) and (2) (count one); third-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(d) (count two); fourth-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(d) (count three); and fourth-degree hindering apprehension or prosecution, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3(b)(4) (count four). After he was indicted, defendant filed a motion to suppress the statements he had made in the Camden hospital and while in custody in Florida. Following three days of hearings, [2] the court denied defendant's motion.

The court also conducted pre-trial hearings in which it ruled that the State could present the testimony of Young, Glover, and a first-floor boarder, Harry Winsch, concerning defendant's threats to harm Lane, and about the relationship defendant and Lane shared.

The trial took place on five non-consecutive days in September 2010. Defendant did not dispute that he stabbed Lane and then stabbed himself. Rather, he attempted to persuade the jury that he did not intend to kill Lane, but repeatedly stabbed her during an uncontrollable jealous rage caused by his fear that Lane might abandon him and the children and resume her relationship with Rollins.

The jury found defendant guilty on all counts. At sentencing, the court merged counts two and three into count one and sentenced defendant on count one to a forty-five year custodial term subject to NERA. The court also sentenced defendant to a concurrent eighteen-month prison term on count four, and imposed required fees and assessments. Defendant appealed from the judgment of conviction.

Defendant raises the following points for our consideration:

POINT I
THE DEFENDANT'S STATEMENTS WERE TAKEN IN VIOLATION OF HIS CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT AGAINST SELF-INCRIMINATION, AND ACCORDINGLY MUST BE SUPPRESSED. U.S. CONST., AMENDS. V, XIV; N.J. CONST. (1947), ART 1, PAR.10.
A. THE FIRST STATEMENT
B. THE SECOND STATEMENT
POINT II
THE TRIAL COURT ERRED TO DEFENDANT'S PREJUDICE IN REFUSING TO DELIVER A LIMITING INSTRUCTION AS TO HIGHLY PREJUDICIAL EVIDENCE OF PRIOR STATEMENTS BY THE DEFENDANT.
POINT III
THE DEFENDANT WAS GREATLY PREJUDICED BY BASELESS AND UN-REMEDIATED TESTIMONY PRODUCED BY THE STATE THAT HE ...

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