898 A.2d 523 (N.J. 2006), State v. Denofa

Citation:898 A.2d 523, 187 N.J. 24
Opinion Judge:Justice ALBIN delivered the opinion of the Court.
Party Name:STATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. John A. DENOFA, Defendant-Respondent.
Attorney:Frank Muroski, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for appellant (Peter C. Harvey, Attorney General of New Jersey, attorney)., Stephen A. Caruso, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for respondent (Yvonne Smith Segars, Public Defender, attorney).
Case Date:June 05, 2006
Court:Supreme Court of New Jersey
 
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Page 523

898 A.2d 523 (N.J. 2006)

187 N.J. 24

STATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

John A. DENOFA, Defendant-Respondent.

Supreme Court of New Jersey

June 5, 2006

Argued: Jan. 17, 2006

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Frank Muroski, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for appellant (Peter C. Harvey, Attorney General of New Jersey, attorney).

Stephen A. Caruso, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for respondent (Yvonne Smith Segars, Public Defender, attorney).

OPINION

ALBIN, Justice.

Defendant John A. Denofa was convicted by a jury of murder. The Appellate Division overturned the conviction because the trial court did not require a jury finding that the crime was committed in New Jersey. In this appeal, we must determine whether territorial jurisdiction is an element of the crime of murder and must be charged to the jury, even absent a request by defendant. Additionally, we must decide whether there is sufficient evidence in the record to support a finding that defendant murdered the victim in this State. We now hold that territorial jurisdiction is an offense element and must be decided by the jury, even without a request from the defendant, provided the record clearly indicates a factual dispute concerning where the crime occurred. In this case, defendant did not request a territorial jurisdiction charge, the trial evidence did not clearly indicate that the location of the murder was at issue, and there was sufficient evidence to support the conclusion that the crime was committed in New Jersey. We therefore reverse the Appellate Division and reinstate defendant's conviction.

I.

A.

On April 1, 2000, the badly battered and lifeless body of twenty-one-year-old Rachel Siani was found lying face down underneath the Delaware River Turnpike Bridge in Burlington Township, New Jersey, approximately fifty yards from the edge of the Delaware River. 1 She was fully clothed, wearing a sweater, blue jeans, and socks. The blood on the bridge's retaining wall, an indentation on the ground directly beneath Rachel's body, and the lack of tire tracks or drag marks in the area strongly

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suggested that she had either fallen or was thrown from the bridge to her death.

Rachel was last seen talking with defendant in the parking lot of Diva's International Gentlemen's Club, located in Levittown, Pennsylvania, in the early morning hours of March 29, 2000. At the time, Rachel, a Bucks County Community College student, worked as an exotic dancer at Diva's and defendant was a regular Tuesday night customer at the club. On Tuesday, March 28, Rachel worked the 4:00 to 10:00 p.m. shift at Diva's. At some point during the evening, defendant and Rachel talked to each other while seated at the bar. Defendant invited Rachel to accompany him to the Sportsters Bar in Falls Township, Pennsylvania, but she declined, explaining that she was too tired. Both left Diva's separately sometime after 10:00 p.m.

At 11:16 p.m., defendant checked into room 223 on the second floor of the Econo Lodge Motel, which is connected to Diva's. On the registration card, defendant listed his vehicle as a red Dodge truck with Pennsylvania license plate number YR08859. 2 Shortly after checking in, defendant took a taxicab alone to the Sportsters Bar, where he met a friend, who drove him back to the Econo Lodge between 2:00 and 2:15 a.m.

Around that same time, Rachel returned to Diva's. At about 2:30 a.m., she and her friend Rebecca Yavorsky left the club and entered Yavorsky's car in the parking lot. There they remained for about half an hour, talking and smoking marijuana. When a police vehicle pulled into the lot, Yavorsky decided it was best to leave and pulled next to Rachel's car to drop her off. At that moment, Rachel saw defendant leaning against the front door of Diva's and told Yavorsky, "Oh, I'm going to say hi to Jack real fast." When Yavorsky offered to wait, Rachel assured her that "[t]here's nothing to worry about." Yavorsky then left. The police officer patrolling the lot saw defendant and Rachel enter the interior lobby of the Econo Lodge. Rachel was never seen alive again.

The State's theory of the events leading to Rachel's death was pieced together from circumstantial and forensic evidence. That evidence led the State to the following conclusions. Rachel fell from the second floor balcony of defendant's motel room to the ground twelve feet below. Afterwards, defendant transported Rachel, who was critically injured but still alive, in the bed of his pickup truck to the Delaware River Turnpike Bridge, from which he threw her 112 feet to her death.

The first support for that theory was the recollection of the Econo Lodge's night clerk that defendant smelled of soap when he checked out sometime shortly after 3:00 a.m. 3 At 3:13 a.m., a tractor-trailer driver observed a red pickup truck similar to the one owned by defendant at the Interchange 29 tollbooth of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, traveling in the direction of the Delaware River Turnpike Bridge. It takes just several minutes to drive from the Econo Lodge to Interchange 29 and only another minute-and-a-half to drive from there to the bridge where Rachel's body was found. The tractor-trailer driver also noticed a person lying in the open bed of the pickup truck, partially covered by a

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white drop cloth and wearing white socks and dark pants.

The Interchange 29 toll records and videotape corroborated those observations. A toll ticket was dispensed at 3:13 a.m. to a two-axle vehicle and an Interchange videotape taken at that time showed a human body in the back of a red Dodge pickup truck. A videotape of Interchange 29 taken at 3:40 a.m. showed the same red Dodge pickup truck passing through, this time without a body in the bed of the truck. 4

The twenty-seven-minute interval between the red pickup truck's two appearances at Pennsylvania Turnpike Interchange 29 was accounted for by additional circumstantial evidence. At approximately 3:30 a.m., a videotape at Interchange 6 of the New Jersey Turnpike captured a red Dodge pickup truck exiting the Turnpike. The corresponding toll ticket indicated that the truck had traveled the stretch of the Turnpike between Interchanges 6 and 7.

Based on the toll records and the videotapes, a New Jersey State Police detective offered his opinion of the route taken by defendant in his red pickup truck in the early morning hours of March 29:(1) defendant went through the toll at Pennsylvania Turnpike Interchange 29; (2) he then traveled to the Delaware River Turnpike Bridge from which he dropped Rachel's body; (3) he continued over the bridge to Route 130, entering the New Jersey Turnpike at Interchange 7 and exiting at Interchange 6; (4) he finally returned to Pennsylvania, crossing the bridge, and passed through Pennsylvania Turnpike Interchange 29.

Forensic and testimonial evidence supported the State's theory that Rachel fell or was thrown from the balcony of defendant's motel room and then placed in defendant's pickup truck. Rachel's DNA matched both a thirty-by-five-inch blood stain found on the sidewalk directly beneath defendant's motel room and blood found in the back of defendant's truck. Additionally, a guest in the motel room below defendant's recalled hearing a loud thump sometime between midnight and 3:00 a.m. The guest later discovered a set of keys identified as Rachel's in the parking lot.

Dr. Faruk Presswalla, the New Jersey State Medical Examiner, conducted an autopsy of Rachel and classified her death as a homicide "caused by the agency of another human being." He concluded that Rachel was still alive when thrown to her death from the Delaware River Turnpike Bridge. Dr. Presswalla detailed the massive injuries suffered by Rachel and the likely cause of those injuries. He first noted that hemorrhages in Rachel's eyes, eyelids, and face indicated that she had been manually strangled, sufficient to cause her "to pass out, but not to cause [her] death." 5 He also described multiple bone fractures throughout Rachel's body, including fractures to her right lower leg, left and right ribs, shoulder blade, left side of the pelvis, left lower jaw, and skull, accompanied by extensive hemorrhaging. The left side of Rachel's skull was fractured into multiple pieces; the right side had a smaller break and less bruising. In addition, Rachel's liver was lacerated and "totally pulpified," and the peritoneal cavity,

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in which the liver is encased, contained 400 cubic centimeters (cc) of blood.

Dr. Presswalla explained the significance of those injuries. In his opinion, Rachel fell on her "left side back" from the second floor of the motel and landed face down after falling from the bridge. The extensive lacerations to the liver and the quantity of blood in the peritoneal cavity indicated "a large force impact on the abdomen." Dr. Presswalla maintained that a fall from the motel's second floor balcony would not likely have caused such massive damage to Rachel's liver. On the other hand, he found the liver injuries consistent with a fall from the height of the bridge. He concluded that had Rachel died from the fall from the motel balcony there would not have been 400 cc of blood in her peritoneal cavity for the simple reason that after death there is no blood pressure and therefore no additional bleeding. He also determined that the left-side skull fracture was consistent with a fall from the second floor of the motel based on the sidewalk bloodstain and that the right-side skull fracture, which caused less bruising due to lowered blood pressure, was consistent with a fall from the bridge. Thus, Dr. Presswalla gave his firm opinion that Rachel was still...

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