STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff–Respondent, v. JAMES EARL JONES, Defendant–Appellant.
Defendant James Earl Jones, convicted of the murder of Hope Stauffer, appeals from the denial of his petition for post-conviction relief (PCR). For the reasons that follow, we affirm.
In March 1993, defendant was tried on a multi-count indictment and convicted by a jury of the following charges: first-degree murder of Hope Stauffer, N.J.S.A. 2C:11–3(a)(1) (count one); felony murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11–3(a)(3) (count three); first-degree kidnapping, N.J.S.A. 2C:13–1(b)(1)(2) (count four); second-degree kidnapping, N.J.S.A. 2C:13–1(b)(1)(2) (count five); conspiracy to commit robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:5–2 (count six); first-degree robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:15–1 (count seven); possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39–4(a) (count eight); unlawful possession of a weapon, N.J.S.A. 2C:39–5(b) (count nine); and first-degree aggravated sexual assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:14–2(a)(3) (count eleven).1 On February 2, 1994, the trial court sentenced defendant to an aggregate term of life imprisonment plus sixty years, including a sixty-year period of parole ineligibility.
We affirmed defendant's convictions and sentences in an unpublished opinion, State v. Jones, No. A–6540–93 (App.Div. Feb. 11, 1998) (slip op.), which was subsequently published in part, see 308 N.J.Super. 174 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 156 N.J. 380 (1998). The facts underlying defendant's convictions are set forth in our previous decision, and the record demonstrates overwhelmingly defendant's guilt of the offenses of which he was convicted.
Defendant filed an initial petition for PCR on February 19, 1999, five years and seventeen days after he was sentenced, which was dismissed on May 7, 1999.2 On October 16, 2008, defendant filed the PCR petition under review. In a comprehensive written opinion, the PCR judge denied the petition on procedural grounds, finding that it was time-barred and that the “overwhelming majority” of the issues had already been adjudicated or could have been raised on direct appeal. Nevertheless, the judge addressed the substance of defendant's claims and found them wanting in merit. Defendant appeals from that denial and presents the following issues for our consideration:
THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN DENYING THE DEFENDANT'S PETITION FOR POST–CONVICTION RELIEF, IN PART, UPON PROCEDURAL GROUNDS PURSUANT TO RULE 3:22–12.
THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN DENYING THE DEFENDANT'S PETITION FOR POST–CONVICTION RELIEF WITHOUT AFFORDING HIM AN EVIDENTIARY HEARING TO FULLY ADDRESS HIS CONTENTION THAT HE FAILED TO RECEIVE ADEQUATE LEGAL REPRESENTATION AT THE TRIAL LEVEL.
A. THE PREVAILING LEGAL PRINCIPLES REGARDING CLAIMS OF INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL, EVIDENTIARY HEARINGS AND PETITIONS FOR POST–CONVICTION RELIEF.
B. THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN DENYING THE DEFENDANT'S PETITION FOR POST–CONVICTION RELIEF WITHOUT AFFORDING HIM AN EVIDENTIARY HEARING TO FULLY ADDRESS HIS CONTENTION THAT HE FAILED TO RECEIVE ADEQUATE LEGAL REPRESENTATION FROM TRIAL COUNSEL AS A RESULT OF TRIAL COUNSEL'S FAILURE TO ASSERT AND PURSUE AN INTOXICATION DEFENSE AT TRIAL.
RULE 3:22–5 DID NOT OPERATE TO PREVENT THE DEFENDANT'S PRESENT CONTENTION FROM BEING ADJUDICATED ON THE SUBSTANTIVE BASIS.
THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN DENYING THE DEFENDANT'S PETITION FOR POST–CONVICTION RELIEF WITHOUT AFFORDING POST–CONVICTION RELIEF COUNSEL THE OPPORTUNITY TO PRESENT ORAL ARGUMENT.
We review a PCR judge's legal conclusions de novo. State v. Harris, 181 N.J. 391, 420–21 (2004), cert. denied, 545 U.S. 1145, 125 S.Ct. 2973, 162 L. Ed.2d 898 (2005). Where the court does not hold an evidentiary hearing, we may exercise de novo review over the factual inferences the trial court has drawn from the documentary record. Id. at 421. The trial court's credibility determinations, to which we normally defer, are not implicated here. See ibid.
While a petitioner is obligated to establish the right to relief by a preponderance of the credible evidence, State v. Preciose, 129 N.J. 451, 459 (1992), the court must consider the petitioner's contentions “indulgently” and view the asserted facts “in the light most favorable” to him or her. State v. Cummings, 321 N.J.Super. 154, 170 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 162 N.J. 199 (1999). An evidentiary hearing should be held where the PCR petition raises genuine issues of material fact which “cannot be resolved by reference to the existing record.” State v. Pyatt, 316 N.J.Super. 46, 51 (App.Div.1998), certif. denied, 158 N.J. 72 (1999).
On the other hand, such a hearing may be denied where it will not assist the court in determining entitlement to PCR, or if the petitioner's allegations “are too vague, conclusory, or speculative.” State v. Marshall, 148 N.J. 89, 158, cert. denied, 522 U.S. 850, 118 S.Ct. 140, 139 L. Ed.2d 88 (1997); see also Cummings, supra, 321 N.J.Super. at 170 (“[A] petitioner must do more than make bald assertions that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel.”).
Our Supreme Court has recently reviewed the Strickland-Fritz 3 standard for ineffective assistance of counsel claims in the PCR context. See State v. Parker, 212 N.J. 269 (2012). As the Court explained, such claims are viewed against a “well-settled” and “identical” standard under both the State and Federal Constitutions. Id. at 279.
The defendant must demonstrate first that counsel's performance was deficient, i.e., that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the counsel guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment. In making that demonstration, a defendant must overcome a strong presumption that counsel rendered reasonable professional assistance.
A showing of deficient performance, standing by itself, is insufficient. In addition, a defendant must also establish that the ineffectiveness of his attorney prejudiced his defense. The defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. If defendant establishes one prong of the Strickland-Fritz standard, but not the other, his claim will be unsuccessful.
[Id. at 279–80 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).]
Here, the PCR judge declined to hold an evidentiary hearing and denied the petition for failure to establish a prima facie case of ineffective assistance of counsel. Defendant argues that a hearing was necessary to establish that trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to effectively present an intoxication or diminished capacity defense. Regarding the former, defendant contends that counsel should have aggressively pursued such a defense, including questioning civilian and police witnesses about his purportedly intoxicated condition on the night in question. Defendant points to two videotaped statements made to the police in which he contended he was inebriated.
On direct appeal, however, we rejected this very claim as “appropriately disposed of on the record before us and ․ clearly without merit.” Jones, supra, slip op. at 30. We noted that defendant's alcohol consumption was examined at trial and the judge instructed the jury on the defense of intoxication. Id. at 31. Therefore, we concluded that defendant did not demonstrate deficient legal counsel with respect to the intoxication issue. Ibid.
We also addressed defendant's diminished capacity argument and found nothing in the record evincing a mental disease or defect. Ibid. Accordingly, we determined that defendant failed to show that counsel was deficient by not pursuing that defense. Ibid. We noted that if any such evidence existed outside the record, it would be preserved for PCR proceedings. Ibid. Defendant has presented no evidence to substantiate this claim, neither to the PCR judge nor to us. The trial evidence, however, reflects that defendant engaged in a complex scheme immediately after the rape and murder to deflect suspicion. Moreover, defendant's videotaped statements were coherent and factually comprehensive. Such conduct belies the presence of intoxication or diminished capacity.
We find no abuse of discretion by the PCR judge in denying defendant's request for an evidentiary hearing since the allegations in his petition were too vague, conclusory or speculative to warrant a hearing. Further, we previously addressed the substance of defendant's ineffective assistance claims. R. 3:22–5. Accordingly, we affirm the denial of defendant's petition on this issue.
Defendant argues that the PCR judge erred by disposing of the petition without affording his counsel an opportunity for oral argument. In State v. Parker, supra, the Court addressed the limited issue of whether defendant “was entitled to oral argument in connection with his first petition for post-conviction relief.” 212 N.J. at 277. The Court stated that “when the trial judge does reach the determination that the arguments presented in the papers do not warrant oral argument, the judge should provide a statement of reasons that is tailored to the particular application, stating why the judge considers oral argument unnecessary.” Id. at 282–83. Here, as in Parker, the PCR judge did not entertain oral argument. We are satisfied, however, that the failure to do so does not warrant reversal.
The defendant in Parker claimed he had been subjected to a threat from a drug dealer for whom he worked. Id. at 273–74. According to the defendant, the drug dealer would have had him killed unless he agreed to carry out the drug dealer's order to kill the victim, and it was fear for his own life that led him to commit the crime. Ibid. The Court noted that the defendant's petition included a copy of the sworn statements the defendant and his co-defendant provided to police at the time of their arrests and that those statements “set forth in detail the facts underlying [the defendant's] claim of duress.” Id. at 283. The Court was therefore satisfied the sworn statements the defendant presented in his petition were sufficient to have warranted oral argument.
Here, however, apart from the fact that defendant's petition was denied over two years before the Parker decision, defendant's petition was defective in that he failed to do more than make bald assertions, thereby failing to establish a prima facie case of ineffective assistance of counsel.
Certainly the better practice, even in the absence of the Parker decision, would have been to conduct oral argument on the motion or to explain why oral argument was unnecessary. See State v. Mayron, 344 N.J.Super. 382, 387–88 (App.Div.2001) (emphasizing the “significant presumption in favor of oral argument” given what is at stake for a criminal defendant). We nonetheless conclude the PCR judge, on this record, did not take too narrow a view of defendant's arguments nor abuse his discretion by disposing of the petition on the papers.
In view of our decision, we need not address defendant's argument that the PCR judge erred by finding his petition was time-barred.
1. FN1. The remaining counts applicable to defendant were dismissed by the judge during trial. At sentencing, the felony murder conviction was merged into the murder conviction, and the conspiracy and weapon possession convictions were merged into the robbery conviction.
2. FN2. The record does not disclose the reason for the dismissal.
3. FN3. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L. Ed.2d 674 (1984); State v. Fritz, 105 N.J. 42 (1987).