State v. Brown

Decision Date21 December 1994
Citation651 A.2d 19,138 N.J. 481
PartiesSTATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent and Cross-Appellant, v. Bobby Lee BROWN, Defendant-Appellant and Cross-Respondent.
CourtNew Jersey Supreme Court

Stephen W. Kirsch, Asst. Deputy Public Defender, and Matthew Astore, Deputy Public Defender II, for appellant and cross-respondent (Susan L. Reisner, Acting Public Defender, attorney).

Nancy A. Hulett, Deputy Atty. Gen., for respondent and cross-appellant (Deborah T. Poritz, Atty. Gen., attorney).

The opinion of the Court was delivered by

STEIN, J.

In January 1993, a Warren County jury convicted defendant, Bobby Lee Brown, of two counts of purposeful or knowing murder in the deaths of Alice Skov and her brother John Bell. It also convicted Brown on felony-murder, robbery, weapon-possession, and conspiracy charges. Because the jury found that Brown had committed the homicides "by his own conduct," N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3c, a penalty-phase hearing followed the jury's verdict in the guilt phase of the trial. At the penalty phase, the same jury unanimously found in respect of the murder of Alice Skov that the

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aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt and that defendant should be sentenced to death. Concerning the murder of John Bell, the jury could not unanimously agree on the punishment. The trial court sentenced defendant to death for the murder of Alice Skov and imposed a consecutive sentence of life imprisonment with a mandatory thirty-year term for the murder of John Bell. All other counts were merged into those murder convictions.

In July 1992, co-defendant Coleen Alexander had pled guilty to felony-murder, robbery, and conspiracy charges in return for dismissal of murder charges and for her agreement to testify for the State at defendant's trial. The court sentenced Coleen Alexander to a life term with a thirty-year parole disqualifer on those charges.

Defendant appealed his convictions and sentence. We now affirm defendant's convictions but vacate his death sentence because of errors in the trial court's instructions concerning the jury's duty to find unanimously that defendant had committed the homicides by his own conduct. Our disposition does not affect defendant's life sentence with thirty-year parole ineligibility for the murder of John Bell. If the State elects not to seek the death sentence on remand, defendant's conviction for the murder of Alice Skov will stand undisturbed and the trial court shall impose sentence in accordance with N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3b. If the State elects again to seek the death penalty for that offense, defendant's murder conviction will be vacated and defendant will be retried on the murder charges.

I

We base our narrative of the facts primarily on the State's version as presented at the trial and reflected in the jury's guilt-phase verdict. We include references to conflicts in the testimony only to the extent that they are relevant to our resolution of the issues.

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A. Events Leading Up to the Murders

Defendant, Bobby Lee Brown, met co-defendant, Coleen Alexander, at a picnic in Pennsylvania on July 4, 1990. At that time, Alexander had been married for several years and had two small children. Since September 1989, Alexander, her husband, and children had been living in an apartment in Bangor, Pennsylvania, although during their marriage Alexander and her husband lived primarily with Alexander's adoptive parents, Violet and Stephen Krouch, at the Krouch's home in Pen Argyl, Pennsylvania. Alexander and her husband had a turbulent and at times abusive relationship.

Defendant and Alexander became romantically involved. Defendant moved into Alexander's apartment on the day of the picnic and Alexander's husband moved out three days later. Neither defendant nor Alexander appeared to be employed during the first few months of their relationship. The couple experienced continuous financial problems, described by Alexander as "[b]ounced checks all over[, b]ills, [and] loan payments." As a result of their financial straits, Alexander had nine bad-check charges and a theft charge outstanding against her in Pennsylvania by the time defendant's trial commenced. The theft charge concerned $5,000 that was stolen from the house of Alexander's grandmother on September 4, 1990. The theft occurred when defendant, Alexander, and defendant's sister visited the grandmother's house. Alexander testified that she learned about the theft only when she saw defendant counting the money after the visit. At trial, defendant's sister refuted Alexander's version of the incident, testifying that only she and Alexander had gone into the grandmother's house, and that Alexander had taken the money from her grandmother's bedroom while defendant's sister unwittingly distracted Alexander's grandmother with conversation in the living room. Defendant and Alexander used $1800 of the proceeds from the theft to purchase a used red Pontiac Fiero for defendant.

On September 24, 1990, defendant and Alexander visited Alexander's great aunt, Alice Skov, at her home in Oxford Township.

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Skov, eighty-two years old, had suffered a stroke in the winter of 1989, and had set up a makeshift bedroom on the first floor in the front of the house. The visit was purportedly urged by Alexander's parents because Skov had just injured herself in a fall. Also at the house was John Bell, Skov's sixty-four-year-old brother and Alexander's great uncle. Since Skov's stroke, Bell had been sleeping at Skov's house to look after her. The visit on September 24 lasted less than an hour, during which defendant and Alexander chatted with Skov and defendant played religious music on an organ in the house.

Defendant and Alexander visited the Skov residence again one day later, ostensibly to ask John Bell directions to Hackettstown, New Jersey, where defendant intended to apply for a job. However, when they arrived, Bell's pick-up truck was not in the driveway. They knocked on the door, and Alice Skov let them in and told them that Bell had gone for a haircut. Alexander explained why they had come and asked to use the bathroom. While defendant continued to speak to Skov, Alexander used the bathroom, and while returning, noticed a change purse on top of a television set. Recalling that defendant had stated that the car was low on gas, Alexander stole ten to fifteen dollars from the purse. According to a version of the visit that defendant gave to police after his arrest for murder, Alexander actually took around $350.

Alexander testified that defendant had overheard a telephone conversation between Alexander and her cousin after the second visit to the Skov home, during which Alexander had discussed a safe in Skov's house that contained a large amount of cash. Alexander further testified that she subsequently had overheard defendant having a conversation with three other friends in the kitchen of Alexander's Bangor apartment regarding "getting money in New Jersey." Alexander also related that defendant made efforts at that time to acquire a gun. Specifically, she stated that she and defendant had stopped at a gas station in East Bangor that also operated as a bar and gun shop. Once inside, defendant

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began pointing out guns on display and asked Alexander to get a price on a particular model.

Two other witnesses testified regarding defendant's interest at that time in "money in New Jersey" and in obtaining a gun. One witness, Robert Lohman, whom defendant later falsely implicated in the murders, testified that he had had a conversation with defendant in the kitchen of the Bangor apartment during which defendant stated that "he needed a gun to do a job in Jersey with easy money." When Lohman replied that he was not interested, the conversation ended. Another witness, Jeffrey Lambert, testified that he had overheard defendant and Alexander talking about a safe in New Jersey, containing approximately $40,000, while Lambert, Lohman, and another man were in the process of helping defendant, Alexander, and Alexander's children move to the home of Alexander's parents, Violet and Stephen Krouch.

Defendant and Alexander moved in with the Krouches on October 4, 1990. On October 9, the day before the murders, defendant traveled to a Pontiac automobile dealership in Wind Gap, Pennsylvania. A salesperson from the dealership testified that defendant had shown interest in a new car on the lot and had taken the car for a test drive. Defendant had stated that his Pontiac Fiero was available as a trade-in. The salesperson informed defendant that the cost of the new vehicle would be approximately $17,800. Defendant and the salesperson filled out a loan application, which the salesperson then forwarded for approval. Defendant returned to the dealership with Alexander late in the afternoon and learned that the lender had rejected defendant's loan application. After discussing other loan alternatives with the salesperson, defendant stated that he either would make alternative loan arrangements or simply come back the next day and pay for the car in cash.

According to the State's evidence, defendant and Alexander returned to the Krouches' home after leaving the dealership. Violet and Stephen Krouch went to the store with Alexander's daughter, and Alexander went down to the basement to do laundry.

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According to Alexander, defendant came down to the basement, pointed a "long gun" at her, and said "stick 'em up." Alexander recognized the gun as her father's rifle and told defendant to put the rifle back. The rifle was kept in the closet in Stephen and Violet Krouch's room. Stephen Krouch testified that he had told defendant about the rifle after Krouch had been informed that defendant was beating Alexander.

Later that evening, defendant and Alexander went to the neighborhood in Bangor in which they previously had lived to visit a former neighbor. Defendant...

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