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State v. Fowler

Supreme Court of New Jersey

July 30, 2019

State of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Joey J. Fowler, a/k/a Joey Williams, Shaquan Williams, Shaquan Harris, and Joey Flower, and Jamil L. Hearns, a/k/a Khalil Hearns, Jay L. Love, Jayson Love, James Holmes, and Jameel Hearns, Defendants-Respondents.

          Argued March 25, 2019

          On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 453 N.J.Super. 499 (App. Div. 2018).

          Milton S. Leibowitz, Special Deputy Attorney General/Acting Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for appellant (Michael A. Monahan, Acting Union County Prosecutor, attorney; Milton S. Leibowitz, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Marcia Blum, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for respondent Joey J. Fowler (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Marcia Blum, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Michael Confusione, Designated Counsel, argued the cause for respondent Jamil L. Hearns (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Michael Confusione, on the briefs and Jamil L. Hearns, pro se, on the supplemental brief).

          Lauren Bonfiglio, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for amicus curiae Attorney General of New Jersey (Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney; Lauren Bonfiglio, of counsel and on the brief).

          Michael Gilberti argued the cause for amicus curiae Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys of New Jersey (Jardim, Meisner & Susser, attorneys; Michael Gilberti, on the brief).

         The Court reviews an Appellate Division judgment that reversed the murder convictions of defendants Joey Fowler and Jamil Hearns for perceived reversible error by the trial court in failing to charge the jury on self-defense, as well as for failing to charge the lesser-included offenses of aggravated manslaughter and reckless manslaughter.

         Fowler and Hearns were indicted for first-degree murder and weapons offenses for the fatal shooting of Donnell Johnson in March 2011. Hearns was also indicted for hindering apprehension or prosecution. At trial, the State and defendants advanced starkly different theories about the shooting. The alleged deficiencies in the jury instructions are based on defendants' version of events, as testified to by Hearns.

         Hearns testified that he and Fowler were near a nightclub in Elizabeth around closing time when he saw Johnson and Jones leave a car and approach him. Hearns testified that no one else was in the vicinity at the time. Fowler was around a corner. According to Hearns's account, Jones demanded that Hearns repay the $5000 he owed Jones. Hearns offered a partial payment, but Jones rejected it and pulled a gun from his waistband and pointed it at Hearns's stomach. Believing that Jones was about to shoot him, Hearns "grabbed [Jones's] wrist and his forearm" and "pushed it away," knocking Jones's "wrist against [Hearns's] knee while holding [Jones's] wrist" with the gun "still in [Jones's] hand." According to Hearns's account the gun fired several times during this struggle. The trajectory of the shots was downward but the bullets ricocheted off the sidewalk in the general direction of Johnson.

         The State presented a very different version of events. The State presented testimony that Jones and Johnson were speaking to one another outside the vicinity of the nightclub when Hearns approached them and shot Johnson, essentially point blank, as revenge for Johnson's participation in a previous assault and carjacking of Fowler.

         At the conclusion of the trial, the court held a jury charge conference. The respective attorneys for Fowler and Hearns stated that neither wanted instructions on lesser-included offenses. The judge indicated he did not "see any version of facts that would support an aggravated manslaughter" charge under either party's version of events. The prosecutor agreed there was no evidence to support a reckless state of mind, and the judge confirmed, "[e]veryone is agreeing, no lesser includeds?" Counsel did not object.

         With respect to the other jury instruction issues, Fowler's counsel asked for a "self-defense slash accident" instruction, acknowledging the court's observation that "technically this is not a self-defense because Mr. Johnson was an innocent by-stander." The court stated that "if somebody drafts a paragraph, I would consider putting it into the murder charge," but indicated that, in its view, Hearns's testimony did not show self-defense as to Johnson; rather, it would tend to negate the state of mind needed to support the murder charge. No one submitted a paragraph. The court rejected as inapposite the further request by Hearns for a traditional self-defense instruction.

         The court instructed the jury that, to reach a guilty verdict for murder, the jury must determine that Hearns caused the victim's death and did so "purposely or knowingly." The court noted that defendant's act must have caused Johnson's death in a way that was not "too remote, too accidental in its occurrence or too dependent on another's volitional act" to have a "just bearing on the defendant's liability."

         Both defendants appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in not instructing the jury on self-defense and lesser-included offenses. 453 N.J.Super. 499, 505-06 (App. Div. 2018). The Appellate Division agreed, determining that the trial court's omission of a self-defense and lesser-included-offense instructions was prejudicial error. Id. at 507.

         The Court granted the State's petition for certification. 235 N.J. 187 (2018).

         HELD: Review of the alleged instructional error must be moored to the facts, and the Court concludes that the omission of the instructional charges was not error under the circumstances of this case. The Court therefore reverses and remands to the Appellate Division for consideration of defendants' arguments that have not yet been addressed.

         1. The mental states of "purposely" and "knowingly" are defined in N.J.S.A. 2C:2-2. To be guilty of murder, a person must "cause[] the death of another human being" purposefully or knowingly. N.J.S.A. 2C:11-2, -3. N.J.S.A. 2C:2-3(b) explains that "the actual result must be within the design or contemplation" of the actor or "the actual result must involve the same kind of injury or harm as that designed or contemplated and not be too remote, accidental in its occurrence, or dependent on another's volitional act to have a just bearing on the actor's liability or on the gravity of his offense." (pp. 16-17)

         2. "[T]he use of force upon or toward another person is justifiable when the actor reasonably believes that such force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting himself against the use of unlawful force by such other person on the present occasion." N.J.S.A. 2C:3-4(a). If a self-defense charge is requested and supported by some evidence in the record, it must be given. The plain language of the self-defense statute clearly indicates that it is inapplicable to the factual scenario proffered by Hearns. The statute is not drafted to address force used against third parties, but rather force used against a party who uses force against the defendant. Reviewing the jury charges as a whole, the Court concludes that, had the jury believed Hearns's version of events, there were ample instructions to lead them to a verdict of not guilty. Although explicitly stating that an accidental death is incompatible with a conviction for murder would not have been an error, the absence of such explication also did not constitute error. (pp. 17-21)

         3. Turning to the lesser-included-offense charges, the inquiry here -- when defendants explicitly declined the opportunity to have the court instruct on the lesser-included charges of aggravated manslaughter and reckless manslaughter -- is whether evidence to support convictions for manslaughter or aggravated manslaughter is clearly indicated from the record; that is, whether that evidence jumps off the page. It does not. Under Hearns's version of the facts, no rational jury could find that he acted recklessly, particularly considering that it was allegedly Jones who pulled the gun and who was holding it when it started discharging before it ever hit Hearns's knee. The Court therefore finds no error in the exclusion of lesser-included-offense charges. (pp. 22-25)

         4. The Appellate Division determined that the jury instructions used at trial did not adequately account for circumstances when the defendant "uses force in self-defense, and in doing so recklessly or negligently injures a bystander" and therefore "'may' be found guilty of assault upon the bystander." Fowler, 453 N.J.Super. at 508. The Appellate Division thus presented additional instructions it would require on that point. The Court finds that those additional instructions are not warranted under the circumstances of this case. The instructions given by the trial court appropriately conveyed to the jury defendants' theory about the accidental nature of the shooting and how that fit within the State's proof requirements. Had the jury believed Hearns's version of events, there were ample instructions to lead them to a verdict of not guilty. (pp. 25-30)

         REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.

          JUSTICE ALBIN, dissenting in part and concurring in part, agrees that the court was not required to charge the jury on lesser-included offenses but expresses the view that, based on Hearns's testimony, the trial court was bound to honor Hearns's request for a self-defense charge. When N.J.S.A. 2C:3-4(a), N.J.S.A. 2C:3-4(b)(2), and N.J.S.A. 2C:3-9(c) are read together, Justice Albin explains, they make clear that the justification of self-defense is available when a person justifiably acts in self-defense toward an aggressor but accidentally injures or even kills an innocent person.

          CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, SOLOMON, and TIMPONE join in JUSTICE LaVECCHIA's opinion. JUSTICE ALBIN filed an opinion dissenting in part and concurring in part.

          OPINION

          LAVECCHIA JUSTICE

         In this appeal, we review an Appellate Division judgment that reversed the murder convictions of defendants Joey Fowler and Jamil Hearns. The appellate judgment rests on perceived error from omitted jury instructions.

         Review of the alleged instructional error at issue must be moored to the facts. At this trial, the State and defendants advanced starkly different theories about the fatal shooting of the victim, Donnell Johnson.

         According to the State, Hearns walked up to the victim and, in an act of revenge, shot him at point-blank range. Hearns then returned to Fowler's waiting car and both attempted to flee but were promptly apprehended by nearby on-duty officers.

         According to defendants' version, the victim -- a bystander -- was shot due to the accidental discharge of a gun during a struggle that occurred between Hearns and the victim's cousin, Algere Jones. Hearns testified that Jones confronted him at gunpoint about money Hearns owed to Jones. According to Hearns, in his effort to dislodge the gun from Jones's grasp, a struggle ensued during which Hearns caused Jones's hand, wrist, and/or forearm to strike against Hearns's knee. The gun went off once before, and multiple times during, the striking of Jones's arm against Hearns's knee. Two ricocheting bullets struck Johnson, unbeknownst to Hearns. When the gun fell to the ground, Hearns grabbed it and ran to Fowler's waiting car to get away from Jones.

         Taking into account defendants' version of events, the Appellate Division determined that the trial court committed reversible error in failing to charge the jury on self-defense, as well as for failing to charge the lesser-included offenses of aggravated manslaughter and reckless manslaughter, which, when pressed by the court, neither defendant wanted included in the instructions. We conclude that the omission of the instructional charges was not error under the circumstances of this case. We therefore reverse, and we remand this matter to the Appellate Division for consideration of defendants' numerous other arguments that have not yet been addressed.

         I.

         A.

         Johnson was shot on March 5, 2011, and he later died from his wounds. As a result, Fowler and Hearns were indicted for first-degree murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1), (2); unlawful possession of a weapon, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b); and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(a). Hearns was also indicted for hindering apprehension or prosecution, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3(b)(4). On the murder counts, the State charged Hearns as a principle and Fowler under an accomplice theory. A jury convicted both defendants of all charges.

         The alleged deficiencies in the jury instructions are based on a review of the facts from the perspective of defendants' version of events, as testified to by Hearns. We therefore begin with a more detailed presentation of Hearns's testimony.

         1.

         Hearns testified that, at the time of the shooting, he owed Algere Jones $5000 and that Jones had confronted him not long before about repaying the debt. The day of the shooting, Hearns and Fowler had been out socializing and were near a nightclub in Elizabeth around closing time. Hearns testified he heard two car doors close, turned, and saw Johnson and Jones leave a car and approach him. Hearns testified that no one else was in the vicinity at the time. Fowler was around a corner.

         According to Hearns's account, Jones demanded that Hearns repay his debt. Hearns offered a partial payment of $1300, which he had on him, but Jones rejected it. Johnson tried to convince Jones to accept the partial payment, but Jones was not to be persuaded. Jones pulled a gun from his waistband and pointed it at Hearns's stomach. Believing that Jones was about to shoot him, Hearns "grabbed [Jones's] wrist and his forearm" and "pushed it away," knocking Jones's "wrist against [Hearns's] knee while holding [Jones's] wrist" with the gun "still in [Jones's] hand."

         Again, according to Hearns's account the gun fired several times during this struggle. According to Hearns, the first discharge occurred before Jones's wrist hit Hearns's knee. The gun continued to fire thereafter "each time [the gun] hit [Hearns's] knee." The trajectory of the shots was downward toward the ground but the bullets ricocheted off the sidewalk in the general direction of Johnson. Hearns later learned that some shots struck Johnson. Eventually the gun fell to the ground, and Hearns dove for it to prevent Jones from using it against him. Hearns ran with the gun back to where Fowler was. Jones and Johnson returned to their vehicle and left the area. Johnson died two days afterward from his gunshot wounds.

         The State presented a very different version of events. The State presented testimony that Jones and Johnson were speaking to one another outside the vicinity of the nightclub when Hearns approached them and shot Johnson, essentially point blank. The shooting, the State alleged, was committed on Fowler's behalf as revenge for Johnson's participation in a previous assault and carjacking of Fowler.

         2.

         At the conclusion of the trial, the court held a jury charge conference during which the parties discussed the propriety of including instructions on lesser-included offenses, self-defense, and accident.

         At the hearing, the respective defense attorneys for Fowler and Hearns stated that neither wanted instructions on lesser-included offenses. The trial judge pressed the issue, seeking to ensure everyone was in agreement and had considered all appropriate theories of the case.

The Court: . . . [I]s there any evidence in the case . . . from which the jury can conclude that, for example, your client might be guilty of reckless and not murder or aggravated?
[Hearns's Counsel]: Well, I think the Court sua sponte can make that observation based on the record, and you don't have to reach too far to see there was testimony regarding a struggle. However --
The Court: If you think it through, if we accept your client's version of what happened, right? That means that, you know, Mr. Jones was coming at him with a weapon and then he grabbed the weapon and was, you know, banging it in a way to, you know, protect himself.
[Hearns's Counsel]: Which is self-defense.
The Court: Self-defense against Mr. Jones. If he was charged with something regarding Mr. Jones, it would be self-defense. He's not charged with any assault or anything vis-à-vis Mr. Jones. But under what circumstances -- under what facts can the jury conclude a set of facts existed that would support a reckless or aggravated -- your client's version of the facts, he didn't bring a gun. He didn't have any intent to harm anybody. Where is there a set of facts that would support -- in the record -- that the jury could conclude that would lead to the conclusion that your client might be guilty of one of the lesser includeds? I'm having trouble thinking of one.
[Hearns's Counsel]: Yeah. In fact --
The Court: You're agreeing with me?
[Hearns's Counsel]: I'm agreeing.
The Court: [Fowler's Counsel], you agree with that ...

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