State v. Dixon

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
Citation593 A.2d 266,125 N.J. 223
PartiesSTATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Phillip DIXON, Defendant-Appellant.
Decision Date25 July 1991

Paul M. Klein, Deputy Public Defender II, and Marcia Blum, Asst. Deputy Public Defender, for defendant-appellant (Wilfredo Caraballo, Public Defender, attorney; Paul M. Klein, Marcia Blum, and Claudia Van Wyk, Deputy Public Defender II, on the briefs).

Chana Barron, Deputy Atty. Gen., for plaintiff-respondent (Robert J. Del Tufo, Atty. Gen., attorney).

The opinion of the Court was delivered by


In this capital case the State does not disagree that the death sentence must be vacated. Point XIII of the State's brief summarizes the point:

Defendant contends that the trial court's charge during the penalty phase with respect to the jury's consideration of mitigating factors was erroneous in that it required the jury to unanimously find an alleged mitigating factor before it could be considered. The State is constrained to agree that the court's charge with respect to the need for juror unanimity before finding the existence of a mitigating factor violates the principles subsequently enunciated in Mills v. Maryland, 486 U.S. 367 , 100 L.Ed.2d 384 (1988), and State v. Bey II, 112 N.J. 123, 159-60 (1988). [Footnote omitted.]

Acknowledging that defendant's death sentence with respect to the underlying murder must, therefore, be vacated, the State seeks to have us remand the matter for a new capital-sentencing proceeding unless the Court determines that the murder conviction does not establish death eligibility. In that circumstance, the State asks that the conviction of non-capital murder be affirmed and the case be remanded for resentencing on the murder count to a term of imprisonment, which for murder is between thirty years and life with a minimum of thirty years without possibility of parole. N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3b. Defendant, in addition to challenging the death sentence on the grounds that the trial court's charge required juror unanimity with respect to the mitigating factors, asserts numerous challenges to the underlying convictions of murder and the related offenses. We find that the conviction for murder did not establish death eligibility, but affirm that conviction in all other respects. Pursuant to the State's election so to proceed, we therefore remand the cause for imposition of the non-capital murder sentence.


The case arises from the brutal murder of a thirteen-year-old girl as she walked home from school. To her last moment, she fought against her stronger assailant. The marks she left on his body and the telltale presence of fibers drawn from his clothing, along with eyewitness testimony of fellow students, sealed the case against her assailant, defendant, Phillip Dixon.

As the young girl, Tanya, walked home from school on Friday afternoon, February 22, 1985, several of her fellow students saw defendant "on top of" her in an area of underbrush along a path between the children's school and homes. (The area was in the Borough of Woodlynne, although the children attended Camden High School.) Although at first the other students thought that there might have been nothing more than an innocent encounter between the two, their suspicions deepened when Tanya did not soon arrive home. The children alerted Tanya's mother of the fact that they had seen Tanya with defendant, an eighteen-year-old fellow student at the high school. Her mother went to defendant's house in search of Tanya, but he was not home.

The police were informed of the missing child. An intensive search disclosed her body approximately one hundred yards from the place of the sighting by the students. Her partially-nude body had been dragged through the underbrush into a creek. Her body was lodged in the water underneath a car seat and other discarded refuse. Only a foot was showing above the surface of the water.

After his encounter with the victim, defendant went to his cousin's home, where he changed his clothes. He claimed that he had been in a fight and called his brother to bring the change of clothes. Later that afternoon, defendant returned home, where his mother told him that the victim's mother had been there asking about Tanya. Defendant again changed his clothes, and that evening went with his brother to Philadelphia. Later that night he went to his grandmother's home in Hempstead, Long Island. Having been informed by the school children that Tanya had last been seen with defendant, the police put out an all-points alert for him. They soon learned that he was in Hempstead at his grandmother's home. The Woodlynne police called the Hempstead police, who arrested defendant on Sunday afternoon, February 24, 1985.

Defendant gave an oral confession to the Hempstead police. A Hempstead officer summarized defendant's statement as follows: On Friday afternoon defendant was walking with his mother to a local bank. He remembered that he needed money to see a movie later, so he returned home to get some money. While returning, he was walking along a path and saw a young girl. He decided to take her pocketbook. He chased her, grabbed her, and forced her down to the ground in a "weeded [sic] area," at which point she was screaming and struggling. She eventually flipped onto her stomach and he straddled her with his knees. But she screamed as he tried to take her pocketbook. She looked at him and said "I know you, I've seen you." As she continued to scream, he reached for "a spike or a nail" lying on the ground and hit her on the head with it. Defendant did not know why he struck the girl and could not remember the amount of pressure he used or whether the nail had penetrated the girl's head. He said that the girl had been screaming "like in the movie '10 to Midnight.' " When the officer said that he had not seen the movie, defendant said, "[I]t was like in that movie when the girl in the movie kept screaming and she wouldn't stop screaming and the guy stabbed her."

A grand jury indicted defendant for the murder of Tanya as well as for a variety of other offenses, including robbery, aggravated criminal sexual contact, hindering apprehension (by concealing her body, destroying evidence, and fleeing), and various other offenses.

At trial, the State produced the school children who had seen defendant with Tanya, on top of her, apparently engaged in a scuffle. They recalled that he wore a camouflage jacket. Another witness described seeing defendant drag Tanya into the woods towards the water. A fiber expert described the fibers found on her body as being identified with defendant's cap. A sneaker imprint was found at the scene that matched the Nike sneakers seized at defendant's cousin's home. A pathologist said that the victim had been struck by a pointed object, that the blow to Tanya's head had pierced her brain, and that death was inevitable from the blow, although she was probably alive when her body was submerged under the water. Two scenes or segments from the movie "10 to Midnight" were shown in which a perpetrator in dissimilar circumstances was stabbing a screaming young woman.

Defendant took the stand on his own behalf. He denied that he had committed the murder, asserting that he had never given the alleged confession and that on the date of the crime he had been wearing a blue Army jacket and red suede Puma sneakers. The Hempstead police officer who had interrogated him testified that defendant had told him that he had been wearing those clothes on Friday afternoon.

The jury convicted defendant of most of the counts but not the robbery count. At the sentencing proceeding, the State charged two aggravating factors: that the murder had involved torture, aggravated battery, or depravity; and that the murder had been committed to avoid apprehension. The jury unanimously found only two mitigating factors and imposed a sentence of death. Defendant appeals to us as of right under Rule 2:2-1(a)(3).

II Pretrial Issues
A. Composition of Grand and Petit Juries

Defendant contends that the Camden County jury-selection system violated his rights to a jury drawn from a fair cross-section of the community and to equal protection of law, and also violated his statutory right to a randomly-drawn representative jury, in violation of the provisions of N.J.S.A. 2A:70 and :71.

1. The Constitutional Issues

In evaluating the constitutional challenge, we briefly review the principles set forth in State v. Ramseur, 106 N.J. 123, 215-38, 524 A.2d 188 (1987). Without restating the principles in detail, we may summarize by stating that under the constitutional guarantees, selection of both grand and petit juries must be free from any taint of discriminatory purpose and the jurors must be drawn from pools that represent a "fair cross-section of the community."

To prove either an equal-protection or a fair-cross-section claim, defendant must (1) identify a constitutionally-cognizable group, that is, a group capable of being singled out for discriminatory treatment; (2) prove substantial underrepresentation over a significant period of time; and (3) show discriminatory purpose either by the strength of his statistical showing or by showing the use of racially non-neutral selection procedures to support the inference of discrimination raised by substantial underrepresentation. State v. Ramseur, supra, 106 N.J. at 215-16, 524 A.2d 188.

In sum, we primarily focus on the cognizability of the group in question, the substantiality of the underrepresentation, and the possible causes of it.

For purposes of this appeal, we shall accept that the assertedly underrepresented minorities (Blacks, Hispanics, and Puerto Ricans) would meet the first prong of the test. We shall also accept, for purposes of this appeal, the statistics set forth in defendant's brief with respect to the representation of those minorities. The data are as follows:


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