Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

State v. Prall

Supreme Court of New Jersey

January 31, 2018

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
TORMU E. PRALL, a/k/a JUDDS EMMANUEL, BUTLER JAMES and PRALL MANUEL, Defendant-Respondent.

          Argued October 23, 2017

         On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

          Jennifer E. Kmieciak, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for appellant (Christopher S. Porrino, Attorney General, attorney; Jennifer E. Kmieciak, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Stephen W. Kirsch, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for respondent (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Stephen W. Kirsch, of counsel and on the briefs).

          SOLOMON, J., writing for the Court.

         The Court considers evidentiary rulings from the trial of defendant Tormu Prall for the arson murder of his brother, John Prall (John), and the attempted murder of John's girlfriend, Kimberly Meadows (Kimberly).

         John moved into his late mother's house in Trenton (the Trenton home), where defendant also lived. John and defendant argued several times about bills. Having left the Trenton home after an argument, defendant asked his girlfriend, Jessie Hartley (Jessie), to return him to the Trenton home. Jessie did so and, while waiting in the car, heard yelling from inside. Defendant then returned to the car "with a gas can in his hand" and said, "I'm going to set the mo**erfu**er on fire. Would you take me to the gas station so I can get some gas?" Jessie declined and, while driving defendant to her house, defendant yelled, "f**k him, I'm going to kill him." At Jessie's house, defendant stated that "Cain killed Abel and [I'm] going to kill [my] brother." Two days later, defendant returned to Jessie's house in the afternoon and told her that he had just come from town, where he had argued again with his brother and, in front of many people, said he was going to kill him. Defendant was wearing a yellow T-shirt.

         Kimberly testified that she and John fell asleep that night. An unknown amount of time went by before she "started feeling something ... hot on [her] right side." She asked John, "[W]hy do you feel so hot?" She then rolled over to find John on fire from his waist up. Kimberly noticed that her own legs were also on fire. When Kimberly awakened John, he began "hollering and screaming saying oh, my God. My Brother, my brother." Kimberly and John were able to exit the Trenton home. An ambulance transported them to a hospital. John died four days later.

         During the search of the Trenton home, a red gas can was located. At trial, Jessie identified the red gas can as the one defendant had retrieved from the Trenton home two days before the fatal fire. Paul Bethea, a City of Trenton sanitation worker, testified that he personally witnessed the argument between John and defendant downtown on the Saturday before the fire. Bethea also testified that he saw defendant standing "staring at the fire." Almost a year later, defendant was located in Connecticut. After returning defendant to New Jersey, a detective noticed and photographed "severe burns to [defendant's] hands." Detectives also learned from Jessie and others that approximately one month before the fire, defendant threatened to burn down both of Jessie's houses when she attempted to end their relationship. As a result, Jessie obtained a restraining order against defendant. Jessie also admitted the following: after the fire, she found the yellow T-shirt defendant wore on the night of the fire; the T-shirt had dried blood and skin on it; and she discarded the T-shirt out of fear of defendant.

         Before trial, the court determined that Jessie's testimony that defendant threatened to burn down her houses was inadmissible. At trial, during direct examination by the State, Jessie testified that, two days after the fire, she found the yellow T-shirt defendant wore the night of the fire with "dry blood and skin on it." She further testified that she "threw it in the trash" because officers had not found defendant and "[she] was scared." Defense counsel objected to Jessie's further testimony regarding her fear of defendant, but the court allowed it.

         On cross-examination, defense counsel questioned Jessie's delay in reporting the yellow, blood-stained T-shirt she had found, and challenged whether she was truly afraid of defendant. At the conclusion of Jessie's cross-examination, the prosecutor argued at sidebar that he should be permitted to question Jessie on re-direct examination regarding the specific threats defendant made to her because defense counsel "opened the door." The court ruled that the prosecutor could explore the nature of the threats. On re-direct examination, the prosecutor questioned Jessie about defendant's threats to kill Jessie. During the State's summation, the prosecutor repeated defendant's threats against Jessie: "I'm going to set your house on fire. . . . That's how he thinks. That's how he gets revenge on people. That's how he does it. He sets houses on fire." Those statements did not elicit an objection.

         During the trial, Kimberly testified-without objection-that when John awoke in flames he shouted repeatedly, "my brother, my brother." During a break, the court expressed concern that those statements were impermissible hearsay. The prosecutor argued that two hearsay exceptions applied-excited utterance under N. J.R.E. 803(c)(2), and dying declaration under N.J.R.E. 804(b)(2). The court found it was error to admit the testimony but concluded that an appropriate instruction would cure the error. The curative instruction was given twelve days later, immediately before summations and after the defense presented its only witness. The court instructed the jury to disregard Kimberly's testimony about John's references to defendant and said the following: "The reason I am instructing you to disregard the testimony is that it is hearsay. I wrestled with that and did research and so forth. I heard it as did you, but it has no probative value in this case, and it has the potential really to incite, to inflame, things of that nature, and it should not be used." The jury returned a guilty verdict on all counts.

         The Appellate Division reversed defendant's convictions, concluding that evidence of "the dangerously prejudicial fact that defendant had threatened to use the same means for [Jessie's] demise a month earlier" should not have been admitted. The panel also noted that the State's improper use of the evidence in summation compounded the trial court's failure to promptly instruct the jurors on how to use the information. The appellate panel also found that John's cries blaming defendant for the fire should have been excluded because John would not have been competent to testify to an opinion not rationally based on his perception. Therefore, Kimberly was not permitted to do so, either. The State petitioned for certification, which the Court granted. 228 N.J. 501 (2017).

         HELD: The court erred by allowing evidence that defendant threatened to burn down his girlfriend's homes and by admitting John's hearsay statements that defendant was responsible for the arson. However, the errors were not capable of producing an unjust result because of the overwhelming weight and quality of the evidence against defendant.

         1. N.J.R.E. 404(b) excludes "evidence of other crimes, wrongs or acts ... to prove the disposition of a person in order to show that such person acted in conformity therewith." To be admissible, such evidence must be relevant to a material issue, and its probative value must not be outweighed by its apparent prejudice. The "opening the door" doctrine is a rule of expanded relevancy and authorizes admitting evidence which otherwise would have been irrelevant or inadmissible in order to respond to (1) admissible evidence that generates an issue, or (2) inadmissible evidence admitted by the court over objection. Here, defense counsel challenged Jessie's representation that she feared defendant. On re-direct examination, however, the prosecutor impermissibly expanded that subject by eliciting testimony about the specific nature of defendant's threat and its similarity to what occurred in this case. It was an abuse of discretion for the trial court to permit Jessie's testimony that defendant threatened to kill her by burning down her houses. The error was magnified by the failure to instruct the jury on the limited use of the evidence, (pp. 16-21)

         2. The State contends that John's statements to Kimberly-"my brother, my brother"-made while John was engulfed in flames, are excited utterances and dying declarations. Nevertheless, they are not allowable as hearsay exceptions unless they would be admissible if testified to at trial by the declarant. The fire started while John and Kimberly were asleep, and John did not awaken until he was engulfed in flames. Thus, John's statements were inadmissible hearsay because they were not based on actual knowledge. Although the trial court allowed Kimberly to testify about John's statements, the court ultimately disallowed the testimony and gave a curative instruction. Here, the curative instruction was given before summations, twelve days after the improper testimony; it was not given immediately. In giving the instruction, the trial judge discussed, among other things, the excited utterance hearsay exception and the fact that he had "wrestled with" the statements' admissibility and barred them after conducting "research and so forth." Therefore, although the judge properly informed the jury of the specific evidence they were to disregard, he did so neither soon enough nor sufficiently firmly, clearly, and effectively to remedy the improper testimony, (pp. 21-25)

         3. To warrant reversal of defendant's conviction, those errors, singly or collectively, must "raise a reasonable doubt" as to whether they affected the result reached by the jury. Here, there was overwhelming fact and expert evidence properly offered against defendant. This is a rare case in which significant errors by the trial court are harmless because, when evaluated in light of the vast evidence against defendant, those errors were not sufficient to raise a reasonable doubt as to whether they led the jury to a result it otherwise might not have reached, (pp. 25-27)

         The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED, and defendant's convictions are REINSTATED.

          CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ VINA, and TIMPONE join in JUSTICE SOLOMON'S opinion.

          SOLOMON, JUSTICE.

         Defendant Tormu Prall was charged with and convicted of the arson murder of his brother, John Prall (John), and the attempted murder of John's girlfriend, Kimberly Meadows (Kimberly).

         The Appellate Division reversed defendant's conviction finding that: his prior threat to kill his girlfriend, Jessie Harley (Jessie), was admitted in error and without a limiting instruction; the State improperly utilized prior bad act evidence in closing; and statements by John to Kimberly were inadmissible hearsay and did not qualify as dying declarations or excited utterances.

         We granted the State's petition for certification and now reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division and reinstate defendant's convictions. We agree with the appellate panel's legal conclusions that the trial court erred by allowing evidence that defendant threatened to burn down Jessie's homes and by admitting John's hearsay statements to Kimberly that defendant was responsible for the arson. However, we find the errors were not capable of producing an unjust result because of the overwhelming weight and quality of the evidence against defendant.

         I.

         We rely upon the trial transcript and the appellate record for the following facts and procedural history.

         A.

         John moved into his late mother's house in Trenton (the Trenton home), where defendant also lived and where defendant's girlfriend, Jessie, stayed four to five times per week. At that time, the utilities were turned off at the Trenton home for nonpayment; they were restored when John satisfied the outstanding utility bills.

         About two weeks after John moved in with defendant and one week before the fire, John and defendant argued about defendant's failure to contribute to the bills and engaged in a physical altercation.[1] The Friday before the fire, John prevented Jessie and defendant from entering the Trenton home, and defendant and John argued again about the bills. Jessie persuaded defendant to leave with her and stay at her house that night.

         The following morning, Jessie drove defendant back to the Trenton home. Kimberly was there visiting John. Kimberly testified that she heard the two argue again about the bills, and heard defendant tell John, "you food, you food, " before a physical altercation[2] broke out between the brothers.[3] During the argument, Jessie was waiting in the car in front of the Trenton home. She testified that as defendant exited the home he yelled to John, "you're going to die, you're going to die, you're going to die." Jessie then took defendant back to her house.

         That night, at around 7:30 p.m., defendant asked Jessie to return him to the Trenton home. Jessie did so and, while waiting in the car, heard yelling from inside. Defendant then returned to the car "with a gas can in his hand" and said, "I'm going to set the mo**erfu**er on fire. Would you take me to the gas station so I can get some gas?" Jessie declined and, while driving defendant to her house, defendant yelled, "f**k him, I'm going to kill him." At Jessie's house, defendant continued to talk about John, stating that "Cain killed Abel and [I'm] going to kill [my] brother."

         Two days later, in the morning, defendant was at Jessie's house when she left for work as a school bus driver; defendant was not there when Jessie completed her route and returned home. Jessie testified that defendant returned to her house around one o'clock in the afternoon and told her that he had just come from town, where he had argued again with his brother and, in front of many people, said he was going to kill him.

         That incident was corroborated by Kimberly, who testified that John had taken her to a bank in downtown Trenton that morning and "h[ad] words" there with his brother. Kimberly heard defendant tell John, "you's a dead man, you dead, you food, you food" and "you are going to die tonight." As John and Kimberly walked away, defendant followed, still trying to argue and calling John a "dead man."

         Later that same day, Jessie took defendant into town again and returned to work to complete her afternoon bus route. After completing her afternoon route, Jessie located defendant in North Trenton. When she found him, defendant was "still kind of upset." Shortly after returning to Jessie's house, defendant fell asleep. Jessie then left to pick up her children from a movie and took them to another house she owned, where she stayed that evening. When Jessie left defendant, he was wearing a yellow T-shirt.

         Kimberly testified that she and John fell asleep that night. An unknown amount of time went by before she "started feeling something . . . hot on [her] right side." Laying on her side she asked John, "[W]hy do you feel so hot?" She then rolled over to find John on fire from his waist up. Kimberly noticed that her own legs were also on fire. When Kimberly awakened John, he began "hollering and screaming saying oh, my God. My Brother, my brother." Kimberly and John were able to exit the Trenton home. An ambulance arrived shortly thereafter and transported them to a hospital. Both were later transferred to the burn unit at Temple University Hospital. John died four days later.

         B.

         The investigation of the fire by the Trenton Police Department and Mercer County Prosecutor's Office revealed the following evidence, which was admitted at trial.

         During the search of the Trenton home, a trained dog alerted officers to the presence of ignitable liquids in the second-floor front bedroom, where John and Kimberly had been sleeping. A red gas can, a BIC lighter, matches, and a can of WD-40 oil were located in the second-floor rear bedroom. At trial, Jessie identified the red gas can as the one defendant had retrieved from the Trenton home two days before the fatal fire. A qualified expert in K-9 handling, fire investigation, and accelerant detection testified at trial that the fire was incendiary, intentionally set, and fueled by an accelerant. He further determined that the fire had two points of origin: the second-floor doorway leading into the front bedroom and the mattress in the same bedroom.

         Paul Bethea, a City of Trenton sanitation worker, testified that he personally witnessed the argument between John and defendant in front of the downtown bank on the Saturday before the fire. Bethea also testified that, on the morning of the fire, he drove by the scene on his way to work and saw defendant standing on a nearby corner "staring at the fire." Bethea stated that he then went into the work-yard to prepare his truck for the day, which took approximately twenty minutes; after he left the work-yard, defendant was still "staring at the fire."

         Based on the information gathered during the investigation, detectives filed charges against defendant and issued a warrant for his arrest. Almost a year later, defendant was located in Connecticut. After returning defendant to New Jersey, a detective noticed and photographed "severe burns to [defendant's] hands." Detectives also learned from Jessie and others that approximately one month before the fire, defendant threatened to burn down both of Jessie's houses when she attempted to end their relationship. As a result, Jessie obtained a restraining order against defendant. Jessie also admitted the following: after the fire, she ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.