State v. Corbitt

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
Writing for the CourtSULLIVAN; PASHMAN
PartiesSTATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. McArthur CORBITT, Defendant-Appellant.
Decision Date06 October 1977

Page 379

74 N.J. 379
378 A.2d 235
STATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
McArthur CORBITT, Defendant-Appellant.
Supreme Court of New Jersey.
Argued Feb. 22, 1977.
Decided Oct. 6, 1977.

[378 A.2d 236]

Page 381

James K. Smith, Jr., Asst. Deputy Public Defender, for defendant-appellant (Stanley C. Van Ness, Public Defender, attorney).

R. Benjamin Cohen, Asst. Prosecutor, for plaintiff-respondent (Joseph P. Lordi, Essex County Prosecutor, attorney).

David S. Baime, Deputy Atty. Gen., for amicus curiae Atty. Gen. of N.J. (William F. Hyland, Atty. Gen., attorney; David S. Baime and Jane E. Deaterly, Deputy Attys. Gen., of counsel and on the brief).

Forrest R. Goodrum, Morristown, filed a brief on behalf of amicus curiae American Civil Liberties Union (Marilyn J. Morheuser, Newark, of counsel).

The opinion of the court was delivered by

CONFORD, P. J. A. D., Temporarily Assigned.

At issue in this case is the constitutionality of the sentencing scheme of the New Jersey murder statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:113-3 and N.J.S.A. 2A:113-4, as judicially altered in State v. Funicello, 60 N.J. 60, 286 A.2d 55 (1972) ("Funicello III"), cert. den. sub nom. New Jersey v. Presha, 408 U.S. 942, 92 S.Ct. 2849, 33 L.Ed.2d 766 (1972). Defendant asks the Court to find: (1) that under United States v. Jackson,

Page 382

390 U.S. 570, 88 S.Ct. 1209, 20 L.Ed.2d 138 (1968), the sentencing scheme of the act impermissibly infringes upon an accused's Fifth Amendment right not to plead guilty and his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial; and (2) that, apart from the Jackson rule, the scheme deprives an accused of the equal protection of the laws.

In view of the limitation of the issues herein by our order of certification, the factual background may be capsulated. On May 11 and 13, 1972 fires occurred at a Newark multi-family dwelling. A visitor at the premises died from smoke inhalation because of the second fire. Defendant confessed to setting both fires to obtain revenge against his landlord. On April 10, 1973 a jury acquitted defendant of arson in relation to the May 11 fire but it found him guilty of arson in connection with the May 13 fire and of murder of the visitor. The murder charge had been tried on a felony murder theory. Defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder and given a concurrent five to seven year prison sentence for the arson.

On appeal the Appellate Division, in an unreported opinion, affirmed the murder conviction but vacated that for arson on grounds of merger. We granted certification but expressly "limited to the question of the validity of the mandatory life sentence upon a jury conviction for murder." 69 N.J. 447, 354 A.2d 644 (1976).

I

Alleged Infringement upon Fifth Amendment and Sixth Amendment Rights.

The basic issue before us is whether the decision in United States v. Jackson, supra, which held unconstitutional the death penalty provision of the Federal Kidnapping Act under the sentencing scheme of the act, condemns as invalid our murder sentencing scheme as revised by this Court after the statute, with a provision for a death penalty, was held unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in Funicello

Page 383

v. New Jersey, 403 U.S. 948, 91 S.Ct. 2278, 29 L.Ed.2d 859 (1971) ("Funicello II"). Comprehension of the opposing views in the case requires our outlining the history of the litigation over the validity of the murder statute before and after its judicial recasting in Funicello III.

[378 A.2d 237] A

Prior to Funicello III our statutes 1 concerning pleading and sentencing for murder read as follows:

N.J.S.A. 2A:113-3

In no case shall the plea of guilty be received upon any indictment for murder, and if, upon arraignment, such plea is offered, it shall be disregarded, and the plea of not guilty entered, and a jury, duly impaneled, shall try the case.

Nothing herein contained shall prevent the accused from pleading non vult or nolo contendere to the indictment; the sentence to be imposed, if such plea be accepted, shall be either imprisonment for life or the same as that imposed upon a conviction of murder in the second degree.

N.J.S.A. 2A:113-4

Every person convicted of murder in the first degree, his aiders, abettors, counselors and procurers, shall suffer death unless the jury shall by its verdict, and as a part thereof, upon and after the consideration of all the evidence, recommend life imprisonment, in which case this and no greater punishment shall be imposed.

Every person convicted of murder in the second degree shall suffer imprisonment for not more than 30 years.

Judgments of death were pronounced under those statutes upon Leo R. Forcella and Victor R. Funicello and affirmed on direct appeal in State v. Forcella, 35 N.J. 168, 171 A.2d 649 (1961), cert. den. 369 U.S. 866, 82 S.Ct. 1035, 8 L.Ed.2d 86 (1962) and State v. Funicello, 49 N.J. 553, 231 A.2d 579 (1967) ("Funicello I"), cert. den. 390 U.S. 911, 88 S.Ct. 837, 19 L.Ed.2d 882 (1968). Post-conviction proceedings were brought by both,

Page 384

and before their final disposition the United States Supreme Court decided United States v. Jackson, supra, 390 U.S. 570, 88 S.Ct. 1209, 20 L.Ed.2d 138.

Jackson involved a death sentence under the Federal Kidnapping Act. That statute provided that kidnapping and interstate transportation of the victim should under specified circumstances be punished by death if the verdict of the jury should so recommend or by imprisonment for any term of years or for life if the death penalty was not imposed. As the statute was construed, the death penalty could not be imposed upon a defendant who waived jury trial or pleaded guilty. The Supreme Court held the death penalty provision invalid, but severable from the remainder of the act. It reasoned that since a defendant could assuredly avoid the death penalty only by pleading guilty or proceeding to trial before a judge, he was "needlessly encourage(d)" to waive his constitutional rights not to incriminate himself, as by a plea of guilt (Fifth Amendment) and to have a jury trial should he plead not guilty (Sixth Amendment). 390 U.S. at 583, 88 S.Ct. 1209. While recognizing the Legislature's legitimate interest in permitting a jury to mitigate the rigors of capital punishment, the Court felt that goal could not be pursued by "penalizing those defendants who plead not guilty and demand jury trial". Id. at 582, 88 S.Ct. at 1217. It cited state statutes which make the jury the arbiter of capital punishment no matter how the defendant's guilt is determined. Ibid.

Forcella, Funicello and others similarly situated brought the Jackson holding to the attention of the New Jersey courts in their post-conviction proceedings, arguing that it was direct authority for the invalidity of the death penalty provision in our murder statute in that only upon a trial did a defendant risk a verdict of death, not by offer and acceptance of a plea of non vult. Thus there existed the same needless "chilling", as in Jackson, of the right to contest guilt and to have a jury at the trial of the issue. In an opinion by Chief Justice Weintraub for a majority of the Court, the argument

Page 385

was rejected, Jackson being distinguished. State v. Forcella, 52 N.J. 263, 245 A.2d 181 (1968). It was pointed out that [378 A.2d 238] our statutory scheme differed from that in Jackson because a defendant could not be tried by a judge but only before a jury, and therefore the Sixth Amendment claim was without merit. Id. at 270-272, 245 A.2d 181. The purpose of the provision was "humane" and not a "needless" discouragement of the right to contest guilt, as in Jackson, and thus the Fifth Amendment was not offended. Id. at 280, 245 A.2d 181.

Justices Jacobs and Hall dissented. They concluded that Jackson compelled the elimination of the death penalty from the New Jersey sentencing scheme but that the statute could be rehabilitated by substituting life imprisonment therefor, without the necessity of scrapping the defendant's option to offer to plead non vult and be allowed the potential of a lesser penalty. 52 N.J. at 294-302, 245 A.2d 181.

On petition for certiorari the United States Supreme Court summarily, and without argument, reversed the Forcella holding three years later in a brief memorandum whose substantive content was confined to the statement:

Judgment, insofar as it imposes the death sentence, reversed and case remanded to the Supreme Court of New Jersey for further proceedings. Funicello v. New Jersey, 403 U.S. 948, 91 S.Ct. 2278, 29 L.Ed.2d 859 (1971) ("Funicello II").

The only explanation given for the ruling was the citation of Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510, 88 S.Ct. 1770, 20 L.Ed.2d 776 (1968), and similar cases 2 and of the Jackson case.

Upon remand to this Court, in Funicello III, supra (60 N.J. 60, 286 A.2d 55), the Court "accept(ed) the conclusion that the

Page 386

United States Supreme Court has declared the death penalty to be unconstitutional under our statute". Id. at 67, 286 A.2d at 59. Considering the provision for the death penalty severable from the statute, the Court ordered all death sentences vacated, and it directed that all pending or future indictments for murder be prosecuted on the basis that upon the jury's verdict of murder in the first degree the penalty should be life imprisonment. Pleas to an indictment for murder were to continue to be governed by N.J.S.A. 2A:113-3. Id. at 67-68, 286 A.2d 55. In effect, the Court adopted the position of the dissenting Justices in State v. Forcella, supra.

The United States Supreme Court denied certiorari to review that determination. New Jersey v. Presha, supra, 408 U.S. 942, 92 S.Ct. 2849, 33 L.Ed.2d 766.

Viewed in relation to the rationale of Jackson, the following possibly pertinent differences are apparent between the sentencing scheme under the federal kidnapping statute dealt with in Jackson and that of our present statute, 3 as recast by our courts: (1) there...

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29 practice notes
  • Gillhaus Beverage Co., Inc. v. Lerner
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
    • January 11, 1979
    ...doubt that the State can sustain its burden of proof. (397 U.S. at 752, 90 S.Ct. at 1471; footnote omitted) See State v. Corbitt, 74 N.J. 379, 394, 378 A.2d 235 (1977), aff'd --- U.S. ----, 99 S.Ct. 492, 58 L.Ed.2d 466 (1978). It is the presence of these substantial benefits flowing to both......
  • State v. Oliver
    • United States
    • Superior Court of New Jersey
    • November 8, 1996
    ...test for purposes of fixing penalties. State in Interest of L.M., supra, 229 N.J.Super. at 95, 550 A.2d 1252 (citing State v. Corbitt, 74 N.J. 379, 401, 378 A.2d 235 (1977), aff'd, 439 U.S. 212, 99 S.Ct. 492, 58 L.Ed.2d 466 (1980) (the Legislature may provide for different classifications o......
  • Corbitt v. New Jersey, No. 77-5903
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • December 11, 1978
    ...protection does not free those who made a bad assessment of risks or a bad choice from the consequences of their decision. Pp. 225-226. 74 N.J. 379, 378 A.2d 235, affirmed. James K. Smith, Jr., East Orange, N. J., for appellant. John DeCicco, Princeton, N. J., for appellee. Page 214 Mr. Jus......
  • State v. Morales
    • United States
    • Superior Court of New Jersey
    • November 10, 1987
    ...have entered into a post-conviction agreement, which provides for a lesser sentence or period of parole ineligibility. 9 State v. Corbitt, 74 N.J. 379, 378 A.2d 235 (1977) held that the United States Supreme Court case of United States v. Jackson, 390 U.S. 570, 88 S.Ct. 1209, 20 L.Ed.2d 138......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
29 cases
  • Gillhaus Beverage Co., Inc. v. Lerner
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
    • January 11, 1979
    ...doubt that the State can sustain its burden of proof. (397 U.S. at 752, 90 S.Ct. at 1471; footnote omitted) See State v. Corbitt, 74 N.J. 379, 394, 378 A.2d 235 (1977), aff'd --- U.S. ----, 99 S.Ct. 492, 58 L.Ed.2d 466 (1978). It is the presence of these substantial benefits flowing to both......
  • State v. Oliver
    • United States
    • Superior Court of New Jersey
    • November 8, 1996
    ...test for purposes of fixing penalties. State in Interest of L.M., supra, 229 N.J.Super. at 95, 550 A.2d 1252 (citing State v. Corbitt, 74 N.J. 379, 401, 378 A.2d 235 (1977), aff'd, 439 U.S. 212, 99 S.Ct. 492, 58 L.Ed.2d 466 (1980) (the Legislature may provide for different classifications o......
  • Corbitt v. New Jersey, No. 77-5903
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • December 11, 1978
    ...protection does not free those who made a bad assessment of risks or a bad choice from the consequences of their decision. Pp. 225-226. 74 N.J. 379, 378 A.2d 235, affirmed. James K. Smith, Jr., East Orange, N. J., for appellant. John DeCicco, Princeton, N. J., for appellee. Page 214 Mr. Jus......
  • State v. Morales
    • United States
    • Superior Court of New Jersey
    • November 10, 1987
    ...have entered into a post-conviction agreement, which provides for a lesser sentence or period of parole ineligibility. 9 State v. Corbitt, 74 N.J. 379, 378 A.2d 235 (1977) held that the United States Supreme Court case of United States v. Jackson, 390 U.S. 570, 88 S.Ct. 1209, 20 L.Ed.2d 138......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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