State v. Butler

Decision Date27 June 1958
Docket NumberNo. A--141,A--141
Citation27 N.J. 560,143 A.2d 530
PartiesThe STATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. William BUTLER, Eugene Williams and Bland Williams, Defendants-Appellants.
CourtNew Jersey Supreme Court

Alfred D. Antonio, Perth Amboy, argued the cause for appellant William Butler (Sam Weiss, Newark, on the brief).

Russell Fleming, New Brunswick, argued the cause for appellants Eugene Williams and Bland Williams (Irving W. Rubin, New Brunswick, attorney).

William D. Danberry, Asst. Prosecutor, New Brunswick, argued the cause for respondent (Warren W. Wilentz, Middlesex County Prosecutor, Perth Amboy, attorney).

The opinion of the court was delivered by


The defendants, William Butler, Eugene Williams, and Bland Williams, the latter two being brothers, were separately indicted for the murder of James Quackenbush. Two other persons were also indicted, James Winbush, who was later committed as insane and did not stand trial, and John Coleman, who testified for the State. Butler and the Williams brothers were tried together, convicted of murder in the first degree, and sentenced to death. Their appeal is before us under R.R. 1:2--1(c). The separate indictment against Coleman was not joined with the others for trial.

The trial was a long one. It began on March 18 and ended on April 12, 1957. The many problems presented on this appeal can be best understood by a general outline of the evidence adduced by the respective parties.

During the early morning hours of July 20, 1956 a fire broke out on the premises of the Koppers Coke Company in Port Reading, Middlesex County, New Jersey. Two patrolling police officers in the neighboring Borough of Carteret noticed the blaze at about 2 A.M., and drove over to investigate it. When they arrived they found a burning Buick automobile, which was parked in the alleyway between the office and the 'foam house' of the Koppers Company. While they were looking around, the officers discovered an outstretched corpse, head and upper chest soaked with blood, lying near a fire hydrant located about 92 feet from the office building. A ravelled fire hose was attached to the hydrant, and near the body lay a pack of cigarettes, two overturned drums, and the handle of a hammer. A fire alarm was turned in and the Woodbridge Police and the coroner were contacted.

An inspection of the area disclosed that the office safe was lying on its back against the side of the office building, directly below a window whose screen had been ripped to permit access to the office. The safe was on fire, and there was debris lying on the ground nearby. The police inspected the interior of the office and found marks indicating that the safe had been dragged across the floor out the rear door and then had been dragged or thrown down the back steps. In the office, drawers and lockers had been rifled and two electric razors belonging to company personnel were missing. Though the premises had been ransacked, no fingerprints were found except one 'latent' print on a venetian blind which was later shown to be that of the office janitor. The dead man outside could not then be identified; his trouser pockets had been turned inside out and were empty. A hammer head and a man's cap were also found in the vicinity.

Subsequently, the deceased was identified as James Quackenbush, a 60-year-old 'relief engineer' in the employ of the Koppers Coke Company. His job was to 'keep steam up and keep the material steam during the course of his tour of duty.' The county medical examiner found the cause of his death to be a cerebral hemorrhage; before receiving the blows that fractured his skull, he had suffered 14 or 15 major body wounds, including nine open lacerations. The time of death was established at between 2 A.M. and 3 A.M., July 20.

Captain Krysko of the Woodbridge Police Department was assigned to conduct a preliminary investigation of the crime. He followed down several leads, all of which were fruitless. Then, on July 29, 1956, at about 1:30 A.M., he received a telephone call from a friend, a private detective named Farrell, who told him that he had information. Immediately after calling, Farrell came to Krysko's home, accompanied by one John 'Pee Wee' Coleman, a Koppers employee. The three men talked for two hours; thereafter, Coleman voluntarily accompanied Krysko to police headquarters and made a statement. In the statement Coleman did not directly implicate himself in the crime but said that Willie Butler, a fellow worker at Koppers, had at various times asked him to assist in robbing a gas station, a bar, and 'a few places in New Brunswick and Perth Amboy'; that Butler had also asked Coleman to help him to steal a safe from the Koppers office when he, Butler, returned from a vacation to Tennessee; that Butler had gone to Tennessee with two companions for about nine days, and had then returned and resumed working at Koppers; that Butler had 'cased' the office and had made plans to rob it at about 2 A.M. some morning by going through a rear window, carrying the safe outside, and blowing it with an explosive which he intended to procure; that he told Coleman these plans, but Coleman 'wouldn't go for that kind of stuff.' The statement also mentioned 'two strangers that Willie was hanging around with'; Coleman did not know them, but they had once given him a ride in a 1949 green Studebaker; the two strangers 'also have' a 1950 Mercury, and their brother owned a 1956 Oldsmobile. Coleman's statement concluded with Captain Krysko asking if there was 'anything else that you can tell me that might help?' to which Coleman replied, 'No, that's about all.' The police finished taking Coleman's statement at 5:15 A.M. In both his two-hour conversation with Krysko and his statement, Coleman implicated no one except Butler. Detective Farrell's interest in the matter may have been motivated by the fact that the Koppers Company had offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the killers.

On the following day, July 30, Butler was arrested as a material witness. He maintained complete innocence of having had anything to do with the crime. His fingerprints were compared with the one print found at the scene of the crime but did not match. Coleman, who was also held as a material witness, was placed on $1,000 bail and released, but he was picked up again a day later. Butler's bail was set at $50,000.

On August 16 or 17, 1956 Coleman, while in custody, implicated the Williams brothers for the first time. They were later arrested and denied all guilt. Subsequently, Coleman also told the police that James Winbush had been a participant, and he was apprehended. After the arrest of the Williams brothers a 1949 green Buick automobile registered in the name of Clarence Williams, another brother, was taken by the police from a parking garage. It was minutely examined by an expert toxologist, who later testified that samples of soil taken from the Koppers property matched specimens taken from the floorboards of the car. However, it was further established that the automobile was very dirty and had not been cleaned in some time. When the police impounded it, the car contained some clothing, tools, a knife, a flashlight, and other articles. These were examined, and none of them could be connected with the crime. In fact, except for the soil specimens, there was no other tangible demonstrative evidence linking any of the defendants with the charge against them. After Butler's arrest all of his clothing and shoes had been taken from his room for testing and although 'quite a volume' of blood was found to be soaked into one pair of shoes, the blood was 'dispursed' and there was not enough to get a type reaction and to match it up against the victim's blood type; and there was no way of telling how long the blood had been on the shoes. There was also a tiny speck of blood at the bottom of a pair of trousers belonging to Coleman, but this was not enough for a test. Otherwise, no loot was found in defendants' possession, and there were no fingerprints, or anything else, to establish them as the criminals. There was no direct physical evidence against them except the soil specimens.

As has been noted, the trial of the three defendants commenced on March 18, 1957. From August 24, 1956, when Coleman was transferred to the Middlesex County jail, until after he had finished testifying at the trial, he was often visited by the police, the prosecutor's men, and county detectives in his cell. A certified Visitor List, reproduced in the appendix, shows that these officers spent a great deal of time with him. Coleman himself, although he emphatically denied at the trial that his testimony was founded on fear or favor, admitted that over a period of approximately seven months, policemen and detectives had visited him at three-day intervals in groups of three or four. He also admitted that he used to lie down and scream during these sessions, but denied that he had been beaten, attributing his agonies to the intellectual efforts involved ('it was hard to tell'). He said that he had been taken to the scene of the crime twice by the police. At first he denied having been shown any maps or photographs, but later stated that he had gone over a map with the prosecutor. He said that in the county jail he had told other inmates that the police had beaten him, but that this was only to shut them up, as it was none of their business and he did not like them asking questions. He accounted for marks observed on his head and body while he was in jail by testifying that, at the suggestion of other prisoners and with their help, he had embarked on a course of self-injury so that he could come into court beaten up, say the police did it, and sue them for $100,000. But he was talked out of this by a preacher who came to see him. Detective Panconi of the Woodbridge Police, who was in...

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