State v. Johnson

Decision Date19 July 1990
Citation576 A.2d 834,120 N.J. 263
PartiesSTATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Walter JOHNSON, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtNew Jersey Supreme Court

Jane E. Haburay and Daniel V. Gautieri, Asst. Deputy Public Defenders, for defendant-appellant (Alfred A. Slocum, Public Defender, attorney).

Robert E. Bonpietro, Deputy Atty. Gen., for plaintiff-respondent (Peter N. Perretti, Jr., Atty. Gen., attorney).

The opinion of the Court was delivered by


Defendant was tried and convicted of two counts of knowing and purposeful murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(1) and (2); robbery in the first degree, N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1; theft of property, N.J.S.A. 2C:20-3; two counts of possession of a dangerous weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4a; and unlawful possession of a weapon, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5b. After a separate sentencing proceeding on the murder charges, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3c(1), defendant was sentenced to death for one of the murders, to a life sentence with thirty years of parole ineligibility for the second murder, plus consecutive sentences totaling thirty-five years with seventeen-and-one-half years of parole ineligibility on the remaining counts.

The State concedes that the death sentence in this case cannot be sustained because the trial court erroneously instructed the jury in the penalty phase that it must find mitigating factors unanimously. See State v. Bey (Bey II), 112 N.J. 123, 156-61, 548 A.2d 887 (1988). We also reverse defendant's convictions on federal-constitutional and state-law grounds that are unrelated to the capital-punishment act (L.1982, c. 111) (the Act) or to the case law construing the Act. See, e.g., State v. Ramseur, 106 N.J. 123, 524 A.2d 188 (1987); State v. Biegenwald, 106 N.J. 13, 524 A.2d 130 (1987). We hold that the trial court committed reversible error admitting defendant's confession into evidence because the detectives who interrogated him did not scrupulously honor defendant's right to remain silent. See Michigan v. Mosley, 423 U.S. 96, 96 S.Ct. 321, 46 L.Ed.2d 313 (1975). Notwithstanding substantial independent evidence of defendant's guilt, we are unable to conclude that that error was harmless. Because the confession as well as other illegally-coerced statements had a clear capacity to affect the outcome of the trial, we reverse the murder convictions as well as the convictions on the robbery, theft, and weapons charges and remand the matter for retrial.


On April 30, 1984, Susan Sayer of Pitman received a call from the secretary of the Sewell School. Alice Sharp, a teacher at the school and Mrs. Sayer's neighbor, had not reported for work. The secretary had called the Sharp house, but no one had answered. She asked Mrs. Sayer to check on Mrs. Sharp.

Mrs. Sayer went next door to the Sharps' home. She found the Sharps' cellar and back doors unlocked. When no one answered her calls, she entered the house. Beyond the dining room, in the center hall, she found the bodies of Bruce and Alice Sharp.

Police Officer Bates and Captain McHenry of the Pitman Police Department responded to Mrs. Sayer's telephone call. They ascertained that the Sharps were dead, noted a broken vase and a fireplace poker lying near the bodies, discovered no signs of forced entry, and found that the upstairs bedroom had been ransacked. They informed the prosecutor's office.

Later that day, the police interviewed Tom Herrara, who told them that on the previous day, he had cut the grass at the Sloans' house across the street from the Sharps'. Part of his job was to dump the Sloans' grass clippings into the Sharps' compost heap. He told investigators that while wheeling his cart full of clippings up the Sharps' driveway, he had encountered a man. They exchanged no words. After first running to some bushes, the man retrieved a dirty gray bicycle with an orange sticker on it and rode away. According to Herrara, the man had big eyes and long "scraggily" hair and wore boots.

On May 1st, Paul Godman, an officer in the Pitman Police Department, received a call from his nephew, Carmen Cattafi. Cattafi had read about the murders in the newspaper, and told his uncle that he knew something about them but was afraid to get involved. Godman set up a meeting between Cattafi and detectives from the Pitman Police Department and the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office.

According to Cattafi, he, defendant, and another acquaintance, Gerald Smith, had spent a couple of hours on the day of the murders drinking wine at Smith's house in Glassboro. At approximately 1:00 p.m., defendant borrowed Cattafi's gray bicycle, saying that he had to get some things that he had "stashed."

Perhaps two hours later, Smith and Cattafi encountered defendant on the streets of Glassboro. Smith and Cattafi were driving in Smith's car to Smith's girlfriend's house. Defendant was riding the bicycle back towards Smith's house. Cattafi noticed that defendant was splattered with blood. Smith stopped the car and Cattafi talked with defendant, who suggested that they go to Camden. Among these friends, "going to Camden" was a euphemism for buying drugs.

The threesome headed back to Smith's house, where defendant washed some of the blood from his face and arms with a garden hose. He disjointedly explained that he had killed one or more people. Cattafi, skeptical of defendant's assertions, thought it equally likely that defendant himself had been the victim of a beating, and that the blood was his own. After "ditching" the bicycle and washing up, defendant, along with Smith and Cattafi, drove to Camden to buy heroin.

During the car ride, defendant told his friends more about the murders. He explained in some detail how he had shot a man and bludgeoned the man's wife to death. Cattafi remained skeptical because he believed defendant to be an untruthful person. Defendant then showed Cattafi some jewelry and cash that he had obtained during the crime. Both the jewelry and the cash were stained with blood.

When they reached Camden, defendant bought heroin for himself and for his friends, and they injected themselves with the heroin. Thereafter, they stopped at Pennsauken Mart, where defendant bought a pair of jeans to replace the bloody ones that he was wearing. He threw the bloody pants out the car window.

Armed with Cattafi's statement, the police prepared to arrest defendant. An attempt to locate defendant in the Camden area, where he had been known to purchase drugs, proved fruitless. In the late evening of May 1, 1984, however, the police located defendant at his parents' home in Glassboro. The police surrounded the house. Defendant's brother, a member of the Pitman police force, went into the house and brought defendant out. At 1:47 a.m. on May 2nd, the police arrested defendant, frisked him, and put him into a waiting police car. Detective Wechter read defendant his Miranda rights, then drove him to the Pitman police station.

At the station police officers escorted defendant to an interview room. Detective Reeves arrived to conduct the interview. Detective Wechter readvised defendant of his rights. Defendant signed a form acknowledging that he understood his rights and also signed a waiver at the bottom of the form. Detectives Wechter and Reeves witnessed the signatures. Detective Wechter then left the room and another detective, Donovan, arrived. During the ensuing interview, which commenced at about 2:00 a.m., Lieutenant Reeves asked most of the questions and Detective Donovan took notes.

According to the detectives' pretrial testimony, in the early stages of the interrogation defendant displayed an easygoing confidence. When asked about his activities on the day of the murders, defendant replied that he had spent the day at a local tavern, drinking beer with friends. When Reeves asked for the names of those friends, however, defendant refused, saying he did not want to involve them in the investigation. Reeves assured defendant of the importance of supplying the names, implying that a credible explanation of his whereabouts would allay suspicion of defendant's involvement in the murders. Reeves suggested that defendant supply the name of the bartender who had served them at the local tavern, but defendant refused. The investigators found his story unsatisfactory. Defendant offered an alternative alibi. He suggested that he had spent the better part of the day driving around with friends. Pressed for details, defendant proved equally reluctant to supply the names of his friends or their itinerary. At the end of approximately forty minutes of questioning, the detectives continued to believe that they had not received an adequate or truthful explanation of defendant's activities on the day of the murders. Defendant maintained his confident, easygoing demeanor.

Several things occurred at about 2:40 a.m. that changed the tenor of the interrogation, although the record does not make clear the order of their occurrence. The detectives asked defendant if he would consent to give exemplars of his hair, blood, and saliva. He consented. They also asked if he would consent to a search of his parents' home. Defendant declined, saying that he had no authority to consent to the search. Reeves persisted, explaining that they wanted defendant's permission to search only those portions of the house under defendant's control, especially his room. Still, defendant refused to give his permission.

During the same period, defendant asked the detectives why his friend Gerald Smith's car was in the police department parking lot. Reeves explained that Smith had given the police information about the crime. Reeves showed defendant the complaint naming him as a suspect in the murders, and told him that the police would not have been able to obtain the signed complaint if they had not had enough evidence to prove the case. At that point, defendant's demeanor changed. Whereas he had previously appeared...

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