State v. Jamerson

Decision Date25 March 1998
Citation153 N.J. 318,708 A.2d 1183
PartiesSTATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent v. Charles L. JAMERSON, a/k/a Charles Lester Jamerson, Charlie, Chuck, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtNew Jersey Supreme Court

Abby P. Schwartz, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, for defendant-appellant (Ivelisse Torres, Public Defender, attorney).

Deborah C. Bartolomey, Deputy Attorney General, for plaintiff-respondent (Peter Verniero, Attorney General of New Jersey, attorney).

The opinion of the court was delivered by

COLEMAN, J.

This appeal involves convictions for reckless manslaughter based in part on operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. Defendant was tried before a jury on two counts of second-degree reckless manslaughter, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4b(1). The defense strategy was to demonstrate that defendant's conduct did not satisfy the recklessness standard. The question whether the victims' vehicle ran a stop sign was intertwined with the issue of recklessness. The State introduced testimony through a county medical examiner that defendant was operating his vehicle in a reckless manner at the time it collided with the decedent's vehicle.

The critical issues raised are (1) whether a medical examiner presenting opinion evidence regarding the manner in which a motor vehicle was operated at a given time must have qualifications beyond those required to be a medical examiner, and (2) if such additional qualifications are required, whether the medical examiner in this case possessed those qualifications. In an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division concluded that although the medical examiner was unqualified to render such an opinion because he was not qualified as an automobile accident reconstructionist, the objectionable testimony was harmless error. We granted defendant's petition for certification. 149 N.J. 35, 692 A.2d 49 (1997).

We reverse and hold that the medical examiner in this case was qualified only as an expert in forensic pathology. Opinion evidence concerning whether a collision was accidental or the result of a driver's recklessness must be presented through someone with special qualifications, such as an accident reconstructionist. It is also beyond the expertise of a medical examiner to present opinion evidence concerning the credibility of a witness's testimony regarding whether a traffic sign was obeyed.

I

-A-

On Friday, January 31, 1992, defendant, Charles Jamerson, and his cousin, Eric Ingels, spent the day together celebrating Ingels's twenty-eighth birthday. Defendant arrived at Ingels's home at 9:30 a.m. and suggested that they get breakfast and go out for some beers. They walked to a bar where they had an early lunch between 10:30 and 11:00 a.m. They remained at the bar until approximately 12:30 p.m. While at the bar, defendant consumed more than forty-eight ounces of beer and three ounces of Sambuca. Thereafter, they walked to defendant's father's house to pick up some money and to borrow his car, a red Chevrolet Cavalier that was involved in the fatal accident. Defendant and Ingels then drove to defendant's sister's house, carrying with them a twelve-pack of twelve-ounce beers. After consuming some beers at defendant's sister's house, defendant drove his sister to a bank. Upon returning, defendant continued to drink. Shortly after 2:30 p.m., defendant and Ingels left to pick up defendant's mother from her job in Glassboro. Ingels brought the remaining cans of beer from the twelve-pack. During that trip, the fatal accident occurred in Elk Township.

The accident occurred at the intersection of County Route 608, also known as Clayton Avenue, and County Route 553, known as Buck Road. The day was gray and windy, but the road was dry. Route 608 runs east and west and Route 553 runs north and south with one lane in each direction. A double yellow line, signaling "no passing," runs down the center of Route 553. The speed limit on Route 553 is fifty miles per hour. On Route 608, the posted speed limit is forty-five miles per hour and there is a stop sign at the road's intersection with Route 553. The stop sign is posted forty-five feet before the intersection. Route 553, on which defendant was proceeding northbound at the time of the accident, is a through street.

Shortly before the accident, a Mercury Sable, operated by Robert McDermott, pulled onto Route 553 in front of defendant. McDermott testified that defendant and Ingels acted as though the Mercury Sable was "cutting them off," forcing them to slow down. From McDermott's point of view he did not "cut off" defendant. Rather, he maintains that when he pulled onto Route 553 defendant was quite a distance away, but gained rapidly at an estimated speed of between sixty-five and seventy miles per hour.

McDermott decided to make a right turn onto Route 608. As he slowed and signaled a right turn, he noticed a light-colored station wagon facing west (the opposite direction) on Route 608. The facts are in dispute concerning whether the station wagon was actually stopped at the stop sign on Route 608.

Seventy-seven-year-old John Ballard was the driver of the station wagon. His wife, seventy-four-year-old Anna Ballard, was also in the car. McDermott testified that Mr. Ballard looked directly at him, and then looked in the opposite direction before proceeding into the intersection. According to McDermott, defendant crossed the double-yellow line, went into the left lane, angrily gestured, and passed as McDermott was turning. After the Ballards' car pulled into the intersection, the front end of defendant's vehicle struck the left center portion of the Ballards' vehicle in the southbound lane of Route 553 in the intersection.

Elk Township Police Officer Milton Sahms arrived at the scene at 2:49 p.m. The officer called for a helicopter to transport Mrs. Ballard to Cooper Hospital. An ambulance took Mr. Ballard to Washington Memorial Hospital. He died within an hour.

Officer Sahms stated that when he arrived, defendant was acting "boisterous," "walking around the vehicle, hollering [and] speaking loudly," and had some minor injuries. The officer directed defendant to sit on the side of the road to await an ambulance. Defendant told Sahms that the accident occurred when he was going around a car turning right and that Ballard ran the stop sign. Sahms smelled a strong odor of alcohol on defendant's breath and observed beer cans inside and outside of defendant's car. Sahms did not observe defendant slurring his speech or staggering, nor did he ask defendant when he had had his last drink. Sahms did not perform any field sobriety tests. Defendant and Ingels were taken to Washington Hospital.

The Gloucester County Medical Examiner, Dr. Claus Speth, arrived at the accident scene shortly after 3:00 p.m. After observing the crash scene and interviewing police officers who had obtained statements from witnesses, Dr. Speth went to the emergency room at Washington Hospital. He requested a physician to obtain blood and urine samples from defendant. Dr. Speth learned that Mr. Ballard had been pronounced dead. Dr. Speth proceeded to the Cooper Trauma Center to determine Mrs. Ballard's condition and to notify her of her husband's death.

Dr. Speth performed an autopsy on Mr. Ballard the next morning. He found crushing injuries to the left side of Mr. Ballard's body, consisting primarily of crushed ribs on the left side. Those crushed ribs caused the left lung to collapse. Mr. Ballard's pelvis, backbone, and spleen were crushed, and his liver and heart were torn. Death was caused by major injuries to the ribs, lungs, heart, liver, and spleen.

Mrs. Ballard sustained a significant head injury, a ruptured spleen, several rib fractures, a bruised lung, and significant injuries above and below the diaphragm. On April 5, 1992, she died of complications caused by the accident.

Kathleen Sandelier was an eyewitness to the accident and was called as a witness by defendant. She testified that she was driving behind defendant's car at the time of the accident. She testified that the Ballards' car entered the intersection without stopping for the stop sign. Her testimony was consistent with her statements to the investigating police officer at the accident scene. However, she gave conflicting statements to Dr. Speth in a post-accident interview. Sandelier acknowledged speaking to Dr Speth and stated that he "had [her] extremely confused as to what [she] saw." She admitted during cross-examination that trees on the side of the road partially obstructed her view of Route 608 and that she did not see clearly whether or not Ballard stopped for the stop sign. It was her "impression," however, that Ballard ran the stop sign.

Valerie Kennedy was also an eyewitness to the accident. She was traveling on Route 553 toward defendant when she observed McDermott turning right onto Route 608. She saw defendant's car come from behind McDermott and partially enter her lane. She was forced to pull halfway onto the shoulder to avoid a possible collision. She estimated that the majority of defendant's car was in her lane traveling at a speed of "high 50s [to] 60s." She observed defendant's vehicle strike the Ballard vehicle on the driver's side. She could not say whether the Ballard vehicle stopped for the stop sign.

Officer Seibert, who had investigated fatal accidents in Elk Township for six years, testified that the point of impact was in the southbound lane of Route 553. He found no skid marks on the road. Based on his investigation, he concluded that the cause of the accident was defendant's improper passing and drunk driving, and that Ballard did not seem to be at fault. He opined that if defendant had stayed in his lane and had not gone around McDermott the accident would not have occurred.

Charles Kearney, Senior Forensic Scientist at the New Jersey State Police Lab, tested defendant's blood using a gas...

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