State v. Laws

Decision Date25 September 1967
Docket NumberNo. A--148,A--148
PartiesThe STATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Horace Nelson LAWS, Defendant-Appellant. The STATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. John WASHINGTON, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtNew Jersey Supreme Court

Charles L. Bertini, Wood Ridge, for appellant, Horace Nelson laws.

Gerald E. Monaghan, Hackensack, for appellant, John Washington.

Richard F. Aronsohn and Thomas J. Gallahue, Jr., Sp. Asst. Prosecutors, for respondent, State (Guy W. Calissi, Bergan County Prosecutor, attorney).

The opinion of the court was delivered by


The defendants Laws and Washington were indicted, along with others, for conspiring to commit armed robbery and for murder. They were convicted of murder in the first degree and were sentenced to death. They were also convicted on the conspiracy charge but sentence on that was suspended. They appealed to this Court as of right under R.R. 1:2--1(c).

During the early morning hours of April 26, 1965 there was an armed robbery at the Public Service Coordinated Transport's terminal garage in Oradell. Christopher Jaeger, a Public Service bus driver, was killed by pellets from a shotgun fired by one of the robbers. The State's evidence as to the robbery was quite detailed but need only be summarized here. At about 3 A.M. three men entered the Oradell terminal. They wore ski masks which covered their heads and had openings for their eyes and mouths. They also wore flesh colored surgeons' gloves. Two of the men were short and the third was tall. The short men carried revolvers and the tall man carried a shotgun. The tall man did most of the limited amount of talking. He spoke with a southern drawl and, while there had been earlier variations in their descriptions, the witnesses at the trial generally agreed that he was brown or dark complexioned. The short men were invariably described as Negroes.

The robbers herded several of the Public Service employees into the cashier's office. There they handcuffed Ellis, a maintenance man, Elliot and Griener, bus drivers, and Jacobus, a bus driver who had been temporarily assigned by Public Service to duties as cashier and depot master. The employees were forced by the robbers to lie side by side on the floor of the cashier's office and their mouths and eyes were covered with white adhesive tape. The robbers then proceeded to empty the safe in the cashier's office. The safe had been open and had contained between 20 and 25 bags of money. After the robbers left the cashier's office, the employees heard a loud bang and then heard an automobile starting up and driving off. It sounded to them like a 'souped-up car or a hot rod.'

The handcuffed employees managed to push a button which sounded an alarm in other portions of the terminal garage. In response, Quinones, a Public Service mechanic, ran in. He announced that Jaeger had been shot and asked that the police and an ambulance be called. In due time the police arrived and found Jaeger's body lying in the garage. A doctor connected with the Bergan County Medical Examiner's office also arrived and ordered the body removed. He performed an autopsy which disclosed that shotgun pellets and wadding had entered the brain. Although the exact amount taken by the robbers was not known at the time of the event, later investigation established that they had stolen $20,512.60. Of that amount approximately $10,000 was in single dollar bills, $2,000 in bills of higher denominations, and the rest in coins except for about $1,000 in checks.

During the early evening hours of April 26th, one Dennis Kingsley was at the Spring Valley, New York, station house talking to Chief of Police Kraniac. Dennis was asked about a burglary at Gattuso's Service Station in Spring Valley and Dennis gave some indication that it had been perpetrated by his older brother Joseph Kingsley and one Peter Kostas. Dennis first inquired whether there had been a big robbery in Bergan County, New Jersey, and later told Chief Kraniac that he knew about its planning. The Bergan County Prosecutor's office was called and shortly thereafter Dennis accompanied two representatives of the prosecutor's office to the Oradell police station. He made statements which were followed in New York by the issuance of search warrants and the search of several apartments including those of Laws and Washington. Thereafter the Bergan County Grand Jury returned separate murder indictments against Laws, Washington, Austin Baker, Joseph Kingsley, John Doe, and Richard Roe. A conspiracy indictment was returned against all of the aforementioned except Joseph Kingsley. Later the indictments setting forth the name of John Doe were amended to substitute the name of Julian Smalls in its stead.

At the trial, Dennis testified to the following effect: His brother had worked at the Oradell terminal and had told him that it would be 'an easy place to knock off.' About mid-April 1965 he and his brother were at the apartment of the defendant Laws who was known generally as 'Hap'. The defendant Washington was also there along with some other men. Dennis saw his brother and Hap leave the living room to talk privately. On Sunday, April 18th, Dennis went to Laws' apartment looking for his brother. Laws told him that his brother had been arrested for 'a safe job in Spring Valley.' While Dennis was in the Laws' apartment, Washington and two other men came in. One of these men was smalls. Smalls complained about his gun and Dennis offered to get a gun from his brother's hotel room. Laws then gave Washington the keys to his Plymouth automobile. Dennis, along with Washington and Smalls, went to the hotel but could not find the gun. They returned to the Laws' apartment and then Washington left for a few minutes and came back with an old single-barreled shotgun. Washington had five or six red and green shotgun shells.

Laws showed Washington how to load the shotgun, then went into the bedroom and brought out a green duffel bag. He opened the bag and took out three ski masks. Dennis described one as predominately red with blue stitching. Dennis also saw Laws take out three pairs of flesh-colored surgeons' gloves. At that point Laws left the apartment saying that he was going to get Austin Baker's car. Laws returned to the apartment shortly and, about two in the morning of April 19th, Washington, Smalls and an unnamed person described by Dennis as a truck driver, left with Laws wishing them luck. At about 3:30 A.M., the telephone in Laws' apartment rang and Dennis heard Laws say that he was glad it happened on the way there and not on the way back. At about 4:30 A.M. the three men returned telling Laws that their car had gone dead.

There was independent testimony corroborating the breakdown of the car and the telephone call to Laws' apartment. Mr. Felice, an employee of Comfort Cab, Inc. testified that about 3 A.M. on the 19th, three Negroes (Washington, Smalls and the truck driver were Negroes) came to his office on Kinderkamack Road in River Edge to get help because their car had broken down. An attempt at jump-starting the car was made by an employee of the Cab Company but was unsuccessful and the men returned with him to the office and made a telephone call. The records of the New Jersey Bell Telephone Company established that at 3:49 A.M. a call was made from Comfort Cab to AU 6--7324 which was the number of the telephone in Laws' apartment. When Laws testified in his own defense he acknowledged that Dennis was at his home on April 18th but denied that he stayed at the Laws' apartment through the night. Laws testified that Dennis left by about midnight and that the telephone call received by him in the early morning hour was a call to him from Dennis.

Dennis testified that at 7:30 A.M. on Monday April 19th he, along with Washington, Laws and Baker, drove in Laws' Plymouth to a side street off Kinderkamack Road, River Edge. There they pulled up in front of Baker's Oldsmobile. Washington then took a green duffel bag from the trunk of the Oldsmobile and placed it in the trunk of the Plymouth. Dennis succeeded in starting the Oldsmobile and they all then drove back to New York. Mr. Rush, a resident of River Edge, testified that he saw a car which he later identified from a photograph as the Plymouth, pull up to the Oldsmobile which had been parked beside his driveway. He said that he saw four men, one of whom was white and the others colored, standing between the cars. Austin Baker, who testified that he had loaned his car to Laws without knowledge of its intended use, stated that he had gone with Dennis, Laws and another Negro to New Jersey to bring back his Oldsmobile. Baker and Laws, as well as Washington, are Negroes and Dennis is white.

Dennis testified that about noon on April 19th he went with Washington and Laws to a pawnshop at 145th Street and Eighth Avenue in New York City. Laws pawned a ring for $30 and Washington pawned a watch for $3. Laws acknowledged that he was in the pawnshop but denied that he had gone there with Dennis and Washington. He testified that as he was leaving the pawnshop he saw Washington there. The proprietor of the pawnshop testified that the pawn tickets issued to Laws and Washington were numbered 18781 and 18782, indicating consecutive transactions. The pawnshop was open from 9 A.M. to 6 P.M. and on the day in question there were 46 transactions prior to and 200 subsequent to those of Laws and Washington.

During a search of Laws' apartment on April 27th, various items were seized by the police officials. They included a green duffel bag, .38 caliber cartridges, a lady's handbag, a brown valise, and $2,784 in United States currency. Most of the currency was found in the valise and handbag and some was found in a dresser drawer and along a window sill. Almost all of the currency was in single dollar bills. Some of these bills contained markings...

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