State v. Erazo

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
Citation126 N.J. 112,594 A.2d 232
PartiesSTATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Samuel ERAZO, Defendant-Appellant.
Decision Date08 August 1991

Page 112

126 N.J. 112
594 A.2d 232
STATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent,
Samuel ERAZO, Defendant-Appellant.
Supreme Court of New Jersey.
Argued Jan. 29, 1991.
Decided Aug. 8, 1991.

[594 A.2d 234] Michael A. Priarone and Michele A. Adubato, Designated Counsel, for defendant-appellant (Wilfredo Caraballo, Public Defender, attorney).

Page 117

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

The opinion of the Court was delivered by


A jury convicted defendant, Samuel Erazo, of capital murder and possession of a [594 A.2d 235] weapon for an unlawful purpose. He appealed as of right to this Court. R. 2:2-1(a)(3). As the State recognizes, the trial court gave two erroneous charges on the murder count. The instruction concerning manslaughter impermissibly shifted to defendant the burden of proving passion/provocation. See State v. Grunow, 102 N.J. 133, 506 A.2d 708 (1986). Furthermore, the court failed to instruct that defendant could be convicted of capital murder only if he knowingly or purposely caused the death of the victim, as distinguished from knowingly or purposely causing serious bodily injury that resulted in death. State v. Gerald, 113 N.J. 40, 549 A.2d 792 (1988). Finding that the charges on the issues were supported by a rational basis, we conclude that the errors were not harmless. Consequently, we reverse the conviction for capital murder, but not that for possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose.


We restrict our factual recitation to those facts relating to the incorrect jury instructions. The tempestuous marriage of Samuel and Lucy Erazo ended on July 20, 1986, when he stabbed her to death after an evening of drinking and quarrelling. Samuel's primary defense was that she had provoked him and that he had killed her in the heat of passion. As the court and counsel recognized at trial, the case turned on Samuel's mental state at the time of the homicide. More specifically, the question was whether he had knowingly or purposely killed his wife, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(1) and -3a(2), and, if so,

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whether he had acted in the heat of passion on adequate provocation, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4b(2).

Samuel and Lucy were married on May 19, 1982, at Rahway State Prison, where he was confined for the 1977 stabbing death of Gladys Colon, the daughter of a woman with whom he had been living. The relationship between Samuel and Lucy was marked by passion, recriminations, and violence. Once, during a visit by Lucy at the prison, defendant struck her because he saw her talking with other men. In April 1985, defendant was released on parole and went to live with Lucy in an apartment in East Orange. After his release, they became embroiled in an argument at the home of one of Lucy's daughters. Again defendant struck Lucy. She started to call the police, but when defendant pointed a knife at her and challenged her to "call the cops," she did not complete the call. On yet another occasion, Migdalia Rodriguez, one of Lucy's daughters, reported to law-enforcement authorities that defendant was staying in Lucy's apartment with Migdalia's sisters and defendant's daughters, a condition that violated a term of his parole. This violation led to the revocation of defendant's parole and his return to prison for several months.

At the time of the homicide, defendant was employed as a security guard at a Woolworth store in Newark. Together with Anthony Baptiste, the cashier-supervisor at the store, Anthony's girlfriend, Maribel Santos, and Michael Harrison, another security guard, defendant went to the Erazo apartment to celebrate Harrison's birthday. On the way, they purchased a six-pack of beer, four wine coolers, and a pint of rum. During the course of the evening, Harrison and another guest, Blanca Flores, who also lived in the apartment complex, purchased a second bottle of rum. Throughout the evening both Samuel and Lucy consumed alcoholic beverages. A test of Lucy's blood taken during her autopsy yielded a blood alcohol reading of .195 percent.

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Tension started to build as soon as defendant arrived at the apartment. When he tried to introduce Lucy to the guests, she refused to leave the kitchen until after dinner. Defendant became further disturbed when he discovered that the stereo was not working because Lucy had disconnected it while rearranging furniture that day. After dinner, Lucy and Blanca joined the party, and the group sat, talked, and listened to the stereo, which defendant and Blanca had fixed. Blanca showed Harrison how to dance the merengue, and the couples changed partners. At one point defendant told Harrison that "my wife is making me mad," and "she is going to make me do [594 A.2d 236] something I don't want to do." Defendant recounted to Harrison that on the previous day Lucy had angered him when he brought her flowers, which she threw in the trash can.

When the party broke up around 11:30 p.m., defendant asked Blanca to drive his friends home. The victim, however, interrupted and told defendant, "no, they're your friends, you take them home." Blanca, however, agreed to drive them home. Embarrassed and angry, defendant accompanied Blanca on the drive. On their return home, defendant and Blanca met the victim, who was drunk and disconsolate, as she left the apartment house. Blanca unsuccessfully tried to persuade Lucy to return to the apartment.

At this point the parties' versions differ. The State contends that Blanca told defendant to follow his wife. According to the State, after threatening that if he went after Lucy, he "might have to kill again," defendant in fact brought her back to the apartment. Defendant denies that he followed Lucy and asserts that she returned voluntarily. Both parties agree that Lucy returned to the apartment sometime after midnight.

According to Blanca's sister-in-law, Anna, who also lived in the apartment house, after defendant and Lucy had returned to their apartment, Anna heard the sound of glass breaking and Lucy screaming "God help me. He is killing me." Defendant then changed his clothes and within minutes of Lucy's return

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left the apartment house. Standing beneath the window of Blanca's apartment, he told her to call an ambulance.

At trial, the State theorized that defendant's motive in killing the victim was that she had purposely cut her hand during her walk and then threatened to call the police, with the intention of telling them that defendant had inflicted the wound. This, so the State would again revoke defendant's parole and return him to prison. In a telephone conversation with the victim's daughter on the morning after the slaying, defendant related that when the victim had threatened him, he had "lost his head" and stabbed her. To the extent that the State relied on the victim's threat to call the police, its theory coincided with that of defendant, who contended that her threat enraged him and that he killed her in the heat of passion.

When emergency medical service and police personnel arrived, they found the victim lying on the floor. Next to her body was a blood-stained knife blade with a broken tip; the handle was on the vestibule floor. The apartment was in disarray, with glasses, a rum bottle, and a box of cassettes knocked to the floor. An autopsy revealed that the victim had sustained four knife wounds to her hands, arms, and chest; three slashes to the neck; and a single stab wound to the back that, according to the medical examiner, killed her instantly.

After leaving the apartment, defendant went to his mother's home in Jersey City, where he told his brother, an unemployed police officer, that he had stabbed the victim. Later that day, defendant surrendered to the police.

During the guilt phase of the trial, the defense centered on the contentions that defendant had been intoxicated, that the victim had provoked him, and that he was therefore guilty only of manslaughter. The jury, however, convicted defendant of knowing or purposeful murder.

In the penalty phase, the jury found two aggravating factors: that defendant had previously been convicted of murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3c(4)(a); and that the murder was outrageously

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or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3c(4)(c). The jury also found four mitigating factors: that defendant had been under the influence of an extreme mental disturbance, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3c(5)(a); that the victim had participated in the conduct resulting in her death, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3c(5)(b); that defendant had been intoxicated, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3c(5)(d); and that defendant had been under unusual or substantial duress, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3c(5)(e). On the jury's finding that the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating factors, the court sentenced defendant to death.
594 A.2d 237] -II-

A. Jury Charge on Passion/Provocation Manslaughter

We begin with the jury charge that impermissibly shifted to defendant the burden of proving passion/provocation. As the United States Supreme Court has held, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt all elements of a crime. In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 90 S.Ct. 1068, 25 L.Ed.2d 368 (1970). A requirement that defendant prove adequate provocation beyond a reasonable doubt violates that rule. See Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684, 95 S.Ct. 1881, 44 L.Ed.2d 508 (1975) (holding that prosecution must disprove adequate provocation beyond a reasonable doubt when the issue is raised in a homicide case). When a defendant places passion/provocation in issue, the State, to prove a knowing or purposeful murder, must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant's actions were not the result of passion. Grunow, supra, 102 N.J. at 145, 506 A.2d 708; State v. Powell, 84 N.J. 305, 315, 419 A.2d 406 (1980).

At the conclusion of the trial, defense counsel requested an instruction that the State bore the burden of disproving passion/provocation....

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