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. J.T.

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

June 13, 2018

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
J.T., [1] Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued January 19, 2017

          On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County, Indictment No. 09-06-1113.

          Brian J. Neary argued the cause for appellant (Law Offices of Brian J. Neary, attorneys; Brian J. Neary, of counsel and on the briefs; Jane M. Personette, on the briefs).

          Ian C. Kennedy, Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for respondent (Gurbir S. Grewal, Bergen County Prosecutor, attorney; Deepa S.Y. Jacobs, Assistant Prosecutor, of counsel and on the brief).[1]

          Before Judges Fuentes, Simonelli and Gooden Brown.

          OPINION

          FUENTES, P.J.A.D.

         Defendant J.T. was indicted by a Bergen County Grand Jury and charged with the murder of her husband, M.T., N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1)-(2) (count one); first degree attempted murder of her minor daughter, K.T. (Karen), N.J.S.A. 2C:5-1 and N.J.S.A. 2C:11- 3(a)(1)-(2) (count two); second degree endangering the welfare of Karen, N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4 (count three); second degree endangering the welfare of her minor son, A.T. (Angel), N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4 (count four); and third-degree terroristic threats against Karen and Angel, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-3(b) (count five). These charges arise from events that occurred on March 29, 2009. The indictment also charged defendant with two crimes that allegedly occurred on an unspecified date between November 12, 2008 and March 1, 2009: first degree attempted murder of Karen, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-1 and N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3 (count six); and second degree endangering the welfare of Karen, N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4 (count seven).

         On December 28, 2011, the jury acquitted defendant of murder, but found her guilty of the lesser included offense of aggravated manslaughter, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4(a). The jury also found defendant guilty of all of the remaining counts in the indictment. On February 29, 2012, the trial judge sentenced defendant to a term of thirty years, with an eighty-five percent period of parole ineligibility and five years of parole supervision, as mandated by the No Early Release Act (NERA), N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2; a term of ten years on count two, attempted murder of Karen, subject to NERA; and five-year terms on counts three and four, endangering the welfare of Karen and Angel. The judge ordered all of the sentences imposed on these offenses to run consecutive, resulting in an aggregate term of fifty years, subject to the parole restrictions of NERA.

         On the remaining counts, the judge imposed concurrent terms of imprisonment as follows: a five-year term on the conviction of third degree terroristic threats; a ten-year term on the conviction of first degree attempted murder of Karen prior to March 29, 2009; and a five-year term on the conviction for second degree endangering the welfare of Karen prior to March 29, 2009.

         The central issue in this appeal does not concern whether defendant actually engaged in the conduct that led to this criminal prosecution. Defendant admitted she suffocated her husband and then attempted to suffocate her children. The question before the jury was whether defendant was legally insane at the time she engaged in this conduct. The jury found defendant was legally sane and therefore criminally culpable.

         In this appeal, defendant raises the following arguments:

         Point I

         MULTIPLE IRREGULARITIES INVOLVING THE JURY REQUIRE

         THAT DEFENDANT'S CONVICTION BE REVERSED AND THE MATTER REMANDED FOR A NEW TRIAL.

a. The method of jury selection was neither random nor conducted in a manner consistent with fN.J.S.A.1 2B:23-2.
b. [Defendant's] due process rights were violated when the [c]ourt addressed the jury pool in her absence.
c. The misconduct of two jurors, and the [c]ourt's thoroughly inadequate ex parte voir dire of them, prejudiced [d]efendant, resulting in a denial of due process and require reversal.
d. The [c]ourt below erred in failing to declare a [m]istrial.

         Point II

         VARIOUS ERRORS REGARDING THE TESTIMONY OF DR. STEVEN SIMRING REQUIRE REVERSAL.

a. Dr. Simring impermissibly opined on the ultimate issue of guilt, thus requiring that [d]efendant's conviction be reversed. ([N]ot raised below).
b. The violation of the sequestration order by the State's expert requires reversal of [d]efendant's conviction.

         Point III

         VARIOUS ERRORS REGARDING THE TESTIMONY OF STATE WITNESS, [DEFENDANT], PREJUDICED DEFENDANT, THUS REQUIRING HER CONVICTION TO BE VACATED AND THE MATTER REMANDED FOR A NEW TRIAL.

a. Summary of [defendant's] trial testimony.
b. Multiple errors regarding the video and transcript of [defendant's] statement of March 29, 2009 require [d]efendant's conviction to be vacated and the matter remanded for a new trial.
c. The procedure employed by the [c]ourt below violated [defendant's] Sixth Amendment right to confrontation.
d. Prosecutorial misconduct requires that [defendant's] conviction be vacated and a new trial [o]rdered.

         Point IV

         CUMULATIVE TRIAL ERRORS IN THE CONTEXT OF THE PROCEEDINGS BELOW DEPRIVED DEFENDANT OF A FAIR TRIAL AND WARRANT REVERSAL.

         Point V

         THE SENTENCE IMPOSED BY THE COURT BELOW IS EXCESSIVE.

a. The [c]ourt below failed to credit [defendant] with all applicable mitigating factors.
b. Concurrent sentences should have been imposed.
c. The [c]ourt below erred in failing to sentence [d]efendant as if convicted of offenses one degree lower.

         In light of the record developed at trial, we reverse defendant's conviction and remand this matter for a new trial. The record shows the prosecutor asked the expert witness to define "legal insanity." This question required the State's expert to improperly opine on defendant's state of mind, stating that defendant had "the specific intent" to kill her husband. This opinion testimony usurped the jury's exclusive role to decide this critical factual issue, rendering any verdict tainted by it unsustainable. State v. Cain, 224 N.J. 410, 424 (2016). Although this issue is before us as a matter of plain error under Rule 2:10-2, we are satisfied that this testimonial evidence is "of such a nature as to have been clearly capable of producing an unjust result." R. 2:10-2.

         Although not outcome determinative, this opinion also includes a detailed description and analysis of the trial judge's ex parte interactions with a pool of prospective jurors. We have taken the time to do this because there are no reported decisions by any court in this State addressing this particular issue.

         I

         The Incident

         Defendant worked as a computer programmer at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT); her husband M.T. was primarily responsible for the rearing of their children as a stay-at-home father. The couple's two children, Karen and Angel, were fifteen and ten years old respectively at the time of their father's death.

         In early November 2008, M.T. suffered a stroke that caused severe physical and cognitive impairments and left him unable to care for himself. Witnesses familiar with the family uniformly testified that before M.T.'s stroke, the couple appeared to have a good relationship, and the family was close and enjoyed spending time together. The children's testimony corroborated these impressions of familial harmony. Karen described her father as humble, "very kind and modest, " and defendant as caring, strong and "very hardworking." Both children described defendant as a "good mom" who rarely yelled and never resorted to corporal punishment.

         On November 21, 2008, M.T. was discharged from the hospital and transferred to the Kessler Rehabilitation Center (Kessler), where he remained until January 6, 2009, when he was thereafter transferred to Maple Glen Care Center (Maple Glen). Soon after, defendant's insurance company issued a "cut letter, " advising that it would not cover M.T.'s stay at Maple Glen beyond February 11, 2009.[2]

         By all accounts, defendant soon became overwhelmed by the responsibilities of being her husband's sole caretaker, the family's sole wage earner, and the de facto single-parent of two children. She was especially distressed after she learned that M.T. was not eligible to receive social security benefits. This required her to "spend down" the family's assets by $81, 000 before M.T. could receive Medicaid.[3] Witnesses who knew defendant testified that she worried incessantly about her husband's medical expenses and feared that they would consume all of the family's resources, leaving nothing left to cover the cost of the children's college education.

         Defendant's work supervisor, David Ullman, referred her to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for counseling because he believed she was "at the end of [her] rope." Ullman testified that defendant would talk to him about dying and seemed like she was "giving up." Karen and Angel testified that their mother changed from being a "very strong" person to being "really depressed, and not really herself." Karen testified that she saw her mother's mental state deteriorate over time; she acted "mad" and "crazy."

         Karen provided the following description of her observations of her mother's melancholic disconnection:

There was a time when -- it's like later in the time period before the incident, she -she was talking -- not saying the word, but she was talking about being suicidal. There was a time when she just . . . wanted to die. She wished that she was dead. She wished -she just wished that everything would be over, because this felt like such a huge boulder on her shoulders. It was a huge burden.
Q. [D]o you remember exactly what she said?
A. There was one [time] when she said that she had threatened - - she almost was in the parking lot, and she wanted to jump off, because it was like a certain floor, and it was high up from the ground.
Q. And she told [you] that?
A. Yes.

         Angel corroborated his older sister's description of defendant's lugubrious mood and frustration over his father's condition, and how her emotional state deteriorated over time. However, in response to defense counsel's questions on cross-examination, Angel made clear defendant never engaged in physical violence:

Q. [W]ould you say that your mom was getting more and more stressed?
A. Yes.
Q. Now, you said to the Prosecutor that she talked about that she was mad. She . . . never hit you; is that right?
A. No.
Q. Okay. Never hit [Karen]; right?
A. Never.
Q. Never hit your dad either; right?
A. No.

         Angel also testified that he and his sister's mutual concerns over the situation prompted Karen to write a letter to defendant on February 21, 2 009, approximately one month before her father's death.[4] The letter provides, in relevant part, as follows:

I know [these] past couple of months have been tough on us . . . . BUT, PLEASE! LISTEN TO ME! You seriously have gone insane! Your emotions are slowly destroying your decision-making skills! All I see from you every single miserable day [is] despair, depression, insanity [and] psychotic craziness . . . .
[Angel] and I try to make you smile a little [but] you just fall into a deeper depression[.]
We need you back! We think you are beautiful [and] loving deep down inside hiding from [the] madness you show now.

         Defendant's behavior also alarmed employees at Maple Glen, the rehabilitation center that treated M.T. after he was transferred from Kessler. They testified that defendant obsessed about M.T.'s care and the cost of his treatment. Kay Giacelone, an admissions director at Maple Glen whose responsibilities included patient intake and working with Medicaid, testified that defendant repeatedly asked variations of the same two questions on a near-daily basis, namely: (1) whether M.T. could qualify for Medicaid; and (2) whether he would ever regain the ability to walk independently.

         Sheila Hudley, an assistant director at Maple Glen, testified about a conversation she had with defendant on February 26, 2009:

She had come in to see . . . how he was doing, have I heard anything . . . . I guess she wanted to know how his rehab was doing. And I basically tried to let her know she had to talk to [the treatment staff]. But, when I saw him, he was walking with Jackie [ (the Occupational Therapist)]; he was okay . . . [Defendant asked if] I had seen him that day, and I said, "Yeah, I'd seen him, " . . . probably earlier that day . . . in the dining[-]room area . . . with other patients . . . .
[S]he asked me if he cannot, . . . she stated he couldn't live like . . . that. And I said, "What are you talking about?" As best as I remember, she said, "He cannot live like that. Do we do an injection?" So I asked her, "What are you talking about?" She asked me, "Do we let people die . . ."
[(Emphasis added).]

         When the witness paused, the trial judge decided to call a recess of the morning session. When the trial resumed in the afternoon, Hudley testified that immediately after this encounter with defendant, she sent an email to her Supervisor, to the center's Administrator, and to the Director of Nursing, documenting what defendant had told her concerning her husband's wishes to end his life if there was no realistic prospect of improvement of his physical condition.

         Hudley also mentioned in her email that defendant was "worr[ied] about money for her kids' education and can't keep spending down . . . ." Although defendant had signed a "DNR" (Do Not Resuscitate) directive for her husband, she insisted "this was not good enough and she wanted to get the doctor . . . to give him an injection so he can die in peace." Hudley characterized defendant's state of mind as "off her rocker" and "nuts." In the email, she cautioned her colleagues: "we better all watch this lady . . . ." In her response to Hudley's email, Giacelone stated that she would ask the "psych doctor to see and evaluate [defendant stat.]" The staff at Maple Glen concluded that defendant did not seem to understand or accept the nature of her husband's brain injury.

         A few weeks after Hudley's encounter with defendant, M.T. had a home visit to determine if he could return home permanently. The visit was brief and "stressful" for the entire family. The level of intensive care M.T. required, particularly around mealtimes, revealed the futility of any attempt to have him home without a permanent healthcare aide. On March 28, 2009, M.T. was sent home a second time; he died the next morning.

         In addition to M.T.'s difficulties at mealtimes, Angel and Karen highlighted two incidents that occurred before M.T.'s death. Early in the evening, M.T. accidentally ripped the bathroom sink off the wall when he leaned on it for support. According to Angel, defendant became "really, really mad." At some point after ten o'clock that evening, Angel heard defendant yelling at M.T. for urinating on the bed. Angel testified that he fell asleep sometime thereafter. He was later awakened by the loud sound of his father "gasping for air." When asked to describe the volume of the sound, Angel responded: "Pretty loud." The child testified that the sound lasted for approximately "five seconds." Although he shared a bedroom with his sister, Angel stated Karen remained asleep at this time. The following exchange captured what occurred next from Angel's perspective:

Q. And was [Karen] in the bed at this point?
A. Yes.
Q. And did you try to wake [Karen] up at all?
A. No.
Q. Did you say anything?
A. No.
Q. But you were scared?
A. Yes.
Q. Okay. What's the next thing you remember after that?
A. I saw my mom come into the room, maybe like a minute after this, after the gasping, and she came in with a plastic bag. And then, she was about to put the bag on [Karen's] head, and [Karen] knocked it out of the way.
Q. Okay.
A. And that's when they started arguing.
Q. Did [defendant] say anything when she came into the room?[5]
A. No.
Q. How did that make you feel? A. More scared.
Q. What did you think was going to happen?
A. That she was going to suffocate me and [Karen].
Q. And if you could, show us how close you saw that bag come to your sister's head?
A. Maybe a foot.
Q. And what did [Karen] do?
A. She like grabbed the bag and pushed it away.
Q. And what happened after that?
A. Then my sister and mom got into an ...

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.