State v. Christener

Decision Date14 July 1976
Citation362 A.2d 1153,71 N.J. 55
PartiesSTATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Benjamin A. CHRISTENER, Jr., Defendant-Appellant.
CourtNew Jersey Supreme Court

James A. Geller, Caldwell, for defendant-appellant.

Solomon Rosengarten, Deputy Atty. Gen., for plaintiff-respondent (William F. Hyland, Atty. Gen., attorney; Solomon Rosengarten, of counsel and on the brief).

The opinion of the Court was delivered by


Defendant-appellant Benjamin A. Christener, Jr. was convicted of manslaughter for the shooting death of one John French during an altercation at defendant's trailer home in Franklin on October 1, 1972. Defendant was sentenced to the State Prison for a term of four to six years.

The Appellate Division affirmed in an unreported opinion and this Court granted certification, 67 N.J. 81, 335 A.2d 34 (1975). Although appellant seeks relief on multifarious grounds, we find material only the question of the propriety of an instruction on first degree murder under the facts of this case. Having reviewed this issue, we conclude that there was error requiring a reversal.


The October 1 shooting incident was actualy the culmination of a large skein of events which occurred during the preceding one-year period. Benjamin Christener was the proprietor of a tavern in Newton. Although married, he was separated from his wife and divorce proceedings had been instituted. Because he lived alone and devoted long hours to his business, defendant resided in a small house adjoining the tavern.

During this period, Mrs. Britt French, wife of the decedent, frequently visited defendant's tavern with friends from work. Through these visits, defendant became aware that Mrs. French was experiencing serious marital problems with her husband. For instance, defendant noticed that Mrs. French often received telephone calls from her husband which left her 'white, pale, nervous and upset.' He also learned that Mrs. French had been threatened by her husband and, as a result, feared for her own safety and that of her four-year-old daughter. On one occasion, Mrs. French came to the tavern with a black eye from a beating which she had received from her husband. While at the tavern, Mrs. French related to defendant other instances of her husband's brutality. For example, on one occasion, after attempting to discuss their marital problems, Mrs. French had been beaten and choked. Mrs. French testified to other beatings she had received as well as an attempt on her life during which she narrowly escaped being thrown from a cliff.

Perhaps most emblematic of this troubled marriage was an incident which occurred on February 26, 1972 involving Mr. and Mrs. French and the defendant. Upon leaving her place of employment at the end of the working day, Mrs. French was unable to locate her car. After accepting a ride from a friend, she went to defendant's tavern where she found both the car and her husband. Earlier, John French had come to the tavern, introduced himself to defendant as the theretofore unknown telephone caller, and indicated to defendant his suspicions concerning his wife's infidelity. Mrs. French at this point entered the tavern and asked her husband if he had taken her car. When he said that he had, she left the building and proceeded toward the parking lot. Before she reached the car, her husband, who had followed her, pushed her to the ground and began to beat her. Defendant observed the assault and then called the police who had to physically restrain and escort Mr. French from the lot. In addition to threatening his wife, French directed a variety of threats and epithets at defendant who had joined the bystanders watching French's arrest. Mrs. French later filed a complaint against her husband who was incarcerated for five days after his conviction in Municipal Court.

Because her entreaties to the local police were generally unsuccessful, defendant, sometime in February, contacted the State Police on her behalf and later arranged for Mrs. French and her daughter to stay at a nearby motel. A bond of affection subsequently developed between defendant and Mrs. French. Mrs. French had by that time instituted divorce proceedings against her husband and had agreed with defendant to be married when their respective divorces were final. In anticipation of this marriage, defendant purchased a mobile home in the Borough of Franklin and Mrs. French and her daughter established residence there.

During the ensuing months, Mr. French made frequent telephone calls both to defendant's tavern and to the mobile home, during which he threatened defendant, Mrs. French and her daughter. On one occasion in July 1972, French directly confronted Mrs. French and her daughter at the local unemployment office. Hoping to avoid an altercation, Mrs. French and her daughter waited in the ladies' lounge until it was time for her interview. During the interview, however, Mrs. French heard the daughter's scream when John French attempted to drag her from the building. Pulling the girl away from her father, Mrs. French summoned the police to escort her to her car.

As a result of these incidents, defendant learned to fear John French largely because of his threats which were made credible by French's great strength and his apparent ability to carry out the threats. While defendant and French were of comparable size, the decedent was a much stronger man. Defendant's fear of French was also heightened by his unavailing efforts to secure police protection for himself and Mrs. French. Although he had purchased a shotgun for protection at Mrs. French's insistence after the employment office incident, defendant continued to actively seek police protection. Nonetheless, the local police proved relatively unsympathetic to his complaints. His inability to impress the police with the seriousness of John French's threats and his own fear of the man produced a sense of frustration and helplessness in defendant. This frustration was manifested after an unsuccessful plea for protection to the local police chief on September 15 when defendant remarked, 'I have a gun down at the tavern and I will shoot the son of a bitch.' This statement, though petulant, stands in stark contrast to defendant's general behavior pattern during this time period. Generally, defendant made great efforts to avoid potential confrontations with French, and his normal activities were altered to accommodate his fear. For example, defendant often slept in the tavern for personal safety. He also had his telephone number changed. On one occasion, he called the police and had French and several companions escorted from the bar after French earlier had threatened to 'bring hoods from New York (to) break the place up and get the pair of you.'

On Friday, September 29, 1972, Mrs. French informed defendant that she expected her husband to visit the mobile home the next day in conjunction with visitation right which had been granted at the divorce hearing. Afraid that John French might kill her, Mrs. French asked defendant to be present and to bring the shotgun with him from the tavern. Defendant consented.

The next morning defendant arrived at the mobile home and placed the shotgun in one of the back rooms. By early afternoon, when French still had not come, defendant, accompanied by Mrs. French and her daughter, decided to do some errands, have supper and then do some work at the tavern. At approximately 11 p.m. they returned home. After Mrs. French and her daughter had gone to sleep, defendant locked both the outside storm door and the inside wooden door and secured the chain lock. He then watched television for awhile and fell asleep in the living room.

He was rudely awakened in the early morning by the constant ringing of the doorbell. Unable to ascertain from a nearby window who was ringing the bell, he asked the visitor to identify himself. In response, John French demanded admittance to the trailer and threatened to kill Christener. When defendant refused to open the doors, French began pounding on the storm door and swearing at both defendant and Mrs. French. Although defendant urged French to leave, these pleas only further enraged him. Defendant aroused Mrs. French in the hope that she might be better able to mollify her estranged husband. However, her efforts also proved unsuccessful, and French continued to bang on the door. When French began to pry the storm door open, defendant telephoned the police, reported a breaking and entering and asked that assistance be sent immediately. At this point, French succeeded in pulling the storm door out of its frame and began pounding on the inside wooden door. Defendant told French that the police had been summoned and would arrive momentarily. This, however, did not deter his efforts to get inside the trailer. Suddenly, the door gave way and was held by only the chain lock. Mrs. French screamed for defendant to 'do something' and he ran to the rear of the mobile home for the shotgun. Retrieving the weapon, he proceeded to load it as he ran towards the living room. Just as he returned, the chain on the front wooden door broke and John French entered the room. Because of the confined quarters, defendant was unable to raise the shotgun to his shoulder and, instead, held it by his side. Although French did not appear to be armed, according to defendant he looked like a 'wild man.' French moved towards Mrs. French and attempted to grab her though she successfully eluded his grasp. Defendant ordered the intruder to leave and repeated that he had called the police. French lunged towards Mrs. French and defendant fired the shotgun. Although he had only intended to hit French in the arm, the unusual manner in which he was forced to fire the weapon (while holding it at his side) and his inexperience in shooting from such a position drastically reduced defendant's ability to aim the shotgun. Because...

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53 cases
  • State v. Kelly
    • United States
    • New Jersey Supreme Court
    • July 24, 1984
    ...did not prejudice her in terms of sentencing. Neither did it produce a compromise verdict of the type referred to in State v. Christener, 71 N.J. 55, 362 A.2d 1153 (1976) where the concern was with the prejudicial effect of overcharging the jury by giving instructions on first degree murder......
  • State v. Short
    • United States
    • New Jersey Supreme Court
    • January 20, 1993
    ...Thus, we will not deliver an instruction on a criminal charge when there is no evidence to support the instruction. State v. Christener, 71 N.J. 55, 362 A.2d 1153 (1976). In Christener, this Court reasoned: It must be assumed that the jury inferred by the giving of such an instruction that ......
  • State v. DiFrisco
    • United States
    • New Jersey Supreme Court
    • July 27, 1994
    ...and its weighing process." Unlike an erroneous submission that presents a jury with mutually exclusive choices, see State v. Christener, 71 N.J. 55, 66, 362 A.2d 1153 (1976), the erroneous submission of an aggravating factor "neither compels nor inhibits [a jury's] determination that anothe......
  • State v. Dixon
    • United States
    • New Jersey Supreme Court
    • July 25, 1991
    ...wholly to accommodate our strong policy to avoid the unfairness and mischief that is wrought by overcharging. E.g., State v. Christener, 71 N.J. 55, 362 A.2d 1153 (1976). That type of error has even more foreboding prejudicial consequences in the context of a capital-murder prosecution. See......
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