NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 2, 2013
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Sussex County, Indictment No. 01-08-00292.
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant (Alison Perrone, Designated Counsel, on the brief).
David J. Weaver, Sussex County Prosecutor, attorney for respondent (Laura L. Nazzaro, Assistant Prosecutor, of counsel and on the brief). Appellant filed a pro se supplemental brief.
Before Judges Harris and Guadagno.
Defendant Irvin Morales appeals from the February 3, 2006 judgment of conviction for felony murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(3), pursuant to a guilty plea allocuted on November 28, 2005. We affirm.
On August 23, 2001, Morales was indicted for first-degree murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1) and (2) (count one); first-degree kidnapping, N.J.S.A. 2C:13-1(b) (count two); first-degree felony murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-(3)(a)(3) (count three); and second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(a) (count four) for shooting and killing Linda M. Wilson. Specifically, it was the State's contention that after Wilson entered Morales's car in New York City on September 10, 2000, "Morales inflicted a gunshot wound to the chest area of the victim." Then, while the victim was still alive but drifting in and out of consciousness, Morales drove to Sparta, New Jersey, where he repeatedly shot the victim and left her to die on the roadway. Wilson's body was found three days later. Following several days of intensive police investigation, Morales was arrested on September 28, 2000, at his residence in Brooklyn.
On January 10, 2002, the State filed a notice of aggravating factors, seeking the death penalty pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(c)(4)(f) ("the murder was committed for the purpose of escaping detection, apprehension, trial, punishment or confinement for another offense") and N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(c)(4)(g) ("the murder was committed while the defendant was engaged in the commission of, or an attempt to commit, or flight after committing or attempting to commit . . . kidnapping).Thereafter, on May 13, 2002, the State filed an amended notice of aggravating factors, which added "Aggravated Assault (shooting of victim in New York) and/or Kidnapping" to its N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(c)(4)(f) aggravating factor.
In November 2003, Morales moved to dismiss the kidnapping and felony murder counts of the indictment. He argued that the victim was not confined against her will because she voluntarily entered Morales's car, and that any confinement subsequent to the first gunshot was simply an inherent part of the murder plot, not separately punishable by N.J.S.A. 2C:13-1(b). The Law Division denied the motion, finding that the grand jury had sufficient evidence to conclude that the victim's lengthy post-gunshot confinement deprived her of medical treatment and enhanced her risk of harm. Furthermore, the confinement was found to be "separate and independent" of the later murder, which was facilitated by the kidnapping.
In February 2004, while incarcerated and awaiting trial, Morales exhibited signs of severe mental distress. On March 8, 2004, the Law Division entered an order mandating a psychiatric evaluation of Morales's fitness to proceed to trial.
On March 23, 2004, a psychologist, Christine Joseph, Ph.D., submitted a competency evaluation report opining that Morales "was clearly competent to stand trial and . . . he showed no evidence of cognitive limitations that would interfere in his participating adequately in his defense." The report cautioned, however, that Morales "made numerous statements to the effect that he will harm himself if given the opportunity and the possibility of acting out in a way that will be disruptive to a trial or his interactions with his attorney cannot be ruled out and close monitoring of his behavior is strongly recommended." A subsequent report of Dr. Joseph dated May 13, 2004, stated that there was "little change in [Morales's] mental or emotional state since last examined in March 2004."
A neuropsychologist, Joel E. Morgan, Ph.D., also completed a mental health evaluation of Morales in March 2004. Dr. Morgan observed that Morales "demonstrate[ed] moderately severe depression." Dr. Morgan diagnosed Morales as suffering from bipolar disorder and "other psychiatric disturbances, including substance abuse disorders, borderline and paranoid personality disorders, and probable post-traumatic stress disorder." As a result, Morales was said to experience "disturbances of cognition and emotions" and "abnormal brain structure and function is likely."
Roger M. Harris, M.D., performed an additional psychiatric evaluation of Morales. Regarding Morales's competency to stand trial, Dr. Harris found that
Mr. Morales understood the charges against him and the serious sanctions that can be leveled against him. He had a good understanding of the roles of individuals in the court and also understood the plea bargaining process. Mr. Morales did have some difficulty with his attorney's actions and felt that they were at cross-purposes at times. He felt that [defense counsel] did not follow all his leads and Mr. Morales ...