State v. Knight

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
Citation145 N.J. 233,678 A.2d 642
PartiesSTATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Appellant and Cross-Respondent, v. Curtis KNIGHT, Defendant-Respondent and Cross-Appellant.
Decision Date11 July 1996

Raymond W. Hoffman, Assistant Prosecutor, for appellant and cross-respondent (Clifford J. Minor, Essex County Prosecutor, attorney; Mr. Hoffman and Maryann K. Lynch, Assistant Prosecutor, on the briefs).

Virginia C. Saunders, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, for respondent and cross-appellant (Susan L. Reisner, Public Defender, attorney).

Debra A. Owens, Deputy Attorney General, for amicus curiae, Attorney General of New Jersey (Deborah T. Poritz, Attorney General, attorney).

The opinion of the Court was delivered by


After a jury trial, defendant, Curtis Knight, was convicted of first-degree murder, third-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, and fourth-degree unlawful possession of a weapon. The Appellate Division reversed defendant's convictions on two grounds: 1) the prosecutor's failure to disclose certain exculpatory information to defendant violated federal constitutional law; and 2) the admission into evidence of defendant's statement to his arresting officer violated defendant's state constitutional right to counsel as construed in State v. Sanchez, 129 N.J. 261, 609 A.2d 400 (1992). See State v. Knight, 283 N.J.Super. 98, 119, 661 A.2d 298 (App.Div.1995).

In Sanchez, supra, we held that mere recitation of the Miranda warnings does not provide an indicted defendant with information sufficient to make a knowing and intelligent waiver of the right to counsel. 129 N.J. at 276, 609 A.2d 400. Recognizing that Sanchez was decided after Knight's trial had concluded, the Appellate Division nevertheless determined that the Sanchez rule applies retroactively and requires the reversal of Knight's convictions. Knight, supra, 283 N.J.Super. at 112-14, 661 A.2d 298.

We granted the State's petition for certification, 142 N.J. 575, 667 A.2d 192 (1995), and defendant's cross-petition, ibid., primarily to review the Appellate Division's conclusion that the Sanchez rule should be afforded retrospective application. We affirm.


In March 1990, defendant was tried along with Cesar Glenn for the murder of Glenn Brown, who was also known as Hassan. The State contended that Cesar Glenn held Brown while defendant beat him to death with a pipe.

The State's case against defendant relied heavily on the testimony of Marie Robinson, who claimed to have witnessed the beating. Robinson testified that on the morning of September 12, 1988, she was talking with friends in front of an apartment building located at 254 Prince Street in Newark. When asked to name those friends, Robinson mentioned a woman known as Hakima and a woman known as Ms. Mohamid. Shortly after 7:00 a.m., Robinson walked inside the apartment building and saw her friend, Glenn Brown, sleeping on the hallway staircase. Robinson woke Brown and told him to go home. Brown explained that he was high, had not slept in four days, and could not go home because someone "was looking for him." Robinson left Brown and rejoined her friends in the front of the building.

According to Robinson, a few minutes later two men who Robinson could not identify entered the hallway of the building from the back door. They were followed by defendant. After finding Brown on the hallway staircase, each of the two unidentified men took one of Brown's arms and dragged him out of the back of the building. Robinson explained that Brown could barely stand up on his own, and remained limp as he was brought out the back door. Robinson moved into the hallway of the building to get a better view of what was happening, and saw the two men hold Brown while defendant hit him in the head with a pipe three or four times. Gunshots were fired, Brown fell to the ground, and the three assailants fled the scene. A state medical examiner corroborated Robinson's story by testifying that Brown's injuries were caused by blunt-force trauma to the head, and that the injuries could have been inflicted by someone wielding a pipe.

Defense counsel vigorously attacked Robinson's credibility. Counsel noted that Robinson's trial testimony was inconsistent with prior statements she had given to the police. Robinson's story had changed regarding where the attack took place, whether anyone else had witnessed the attack, and how much of the attack Robinson herself had observed. Robinson admitted to having previously lied to the police when she told them that she did not know the names of any of the other persons standing in front of the apartment building when the beating took place. She also conceded that she did not contact the police to inform them of what she had witnessed until eleven days after the killing, when she told her story to her probation officer. At that time Robinson was awaiting sentencing on a possession-of-cocaine charge to which she had pled guilty. However, Robinson emphasized at trial that she had received no benefit as a result of her testimony.

Another aspect of the State's case against defendant concerned a baseball hat found at the crime scene that contained the logo "Pepsi-Cola Teterboro." The State contended that the hat belonged to defendant. Although the State did not offer the hat into evidence, it did offer a picture taken of the crime scene that depicted the hat lying on the ground. A Pepsi employee testified that defendant worked at Pepsi's Teterboro plant in 1985 and 1986, when such hats were distributed to all employees. However, no witness indicated that Brown's attacker was wearing a baseball cap.

The State's case also included evidence seized from defendant when he was arrested in California. Defendant was indicted for the murder of Glenn Brown on December 8, 1988. However, because defendant and his girlfriend, Kathy Capella, had moved to California in October of 1988, New Jersey law enforcement authorities had been unable to find defendant prior to or after his indictment. On October 25, 1989, F.B.I. Agent Mark Wilson and local police officers located and apprehended defendant in Palmdale, California.

At the time of his arrest, defendant was driving a black Ford that belonged to Capella. When the arresting officers searched the car they found a pipe on the floor beneath the front passenger's seat. The State argued at trial that the pipe was the weapon used to kill Brown. The State based that argument on Robinson's testimony that the seized pipe was the same size as the pipe used to kill Brown and that it looked like the same pipe. Capella testified that she had picked up the pipe in September 1989 while jogging in order to ward off a dog. She testified that she later put the pipe in her car and had not used it since.

The trial court also admitted into evidence a statement that defendant allegedly made to Agent Wilson following his arrest. According to Wilson, defendant waived his Miranda rights and stated that while he was living in New Jersey he had been robbed by Brown. After the robbery, defendant learned that someone named Rahaem or Knight had beaten up Brown and inflicted serious injuries in the process. Brown's friends apparently believed that defendant was the culprit, and were looking for defendant to exact revenge for the beating. Defendant thus explained to Wilson that he left New Jersey because he feared for his life and that he did not know that the police were looking for him. Although defendant's explanation was not directly inculpatory, at trial the State used defendant's story to connect him to Brown and to argue that defendant killed Brown to get revenge for the robbery.

Dwight Goines, Brown's cousin, was defendant's primary witness. In his testimony, Goines contradicted Marie Robinson's account of Brown's death. On the day of the murder, Goines was working for the Newark Housing Authority, painting the doors of the apartments in the Prince Street apartment building. Goines testified that shortly after 8:15 a.m., while Goines was painting, Brown approached him and the two spoke for approximately twenty minutes. Brown told Goines that he had been awake all night, but, according to Goines, Brown's physical condition appeared to be normal. After their conversation, Goines went to the front of the building to paint the exterior of the front door and Brown walked toward the back door. While painting outside the front of the building, Goines heard a gun shot. He ran into the building, looked out of a window, and saw two men running from the rear of the building. He then went to the back of the building and saw his wounded cousin lying on the back porch. Goines testified that he did not see either defendant or Marie Robinson at 254 Prince Street on that day.

The jury found defendant guilty of all charged offenses: first-degree murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(1), (2); fourth-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5d; and third-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39- Y On the murder count, defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment with thirty years of parole ineligibility. The other two counts were merged with the murder conviction. The codefendant, Cesar Glenn, was found not guilty on all counts.

Defendant subsequently moved for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence. In support of that motion, defendant presented the testimony of Kenneth Barnhill, who allegedly was with Brown on the morning of his death and saw Brown beaten to death. Barnhill explained that, around 7:00 a.m. on September 12, 1988, he and Brown were talking while sitting on a bench in front of the building located at 260 Prince Street. They then walked to 254 Prince Street, where Barnhill sat on a car and read a newspaper while Brown went to the back porch of the apartment building. Barnhill testified that a black male with a light complexion later walked into the building,...

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