State v. Martin

Decision Date17 May 1990
PartiesSTATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Daniel MARTIN, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtNew Jersey Supreme Court

Joel C. Seltzer, Designated Counsel, Clark, for defendant-appellant (Alfred A. Slocum, Public Defender, attorney).

Daniel L. Martin submitted a supplemental brief pro se.

Robert E. Bonpietro, Deputy Atty. Gen., for defendant-respondent (Robert J. Del Tufo, Atty. Gen. of New Jersey, attorney).

The opinion of the Court was delivered by

POLLOCK, J.

Defendant, Daniel Martin, was found guilty of knowing and purposeful murder, felony murder, arson, and aggravated arson arising out of the death of a woman in a building that he set on fire. At sentencing, the felony-murder verdict was merged into the conviction for knowing and purposeful murder, and the arson verdict into the aggravated-arson conviction. On the knowing- and purposeful-murder verdict, the jury found that the death penalty was not appropriate, and defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment with thirty years of parole ineligibility. Defendant was sentenced to a concurrent ten-year term with five years of parole ineligibility on the aggravated-arson conviction.

The Appellate Division affirmed, 213 N.J.Super. 426, 517 A.2d 513 (1986). We granted defendant's petition for certification seeking reversal of the murder conviction, 108 N.J. 654, 532 A.2d 234 (1987). Because the charge incorrectly instructed the jury on the standard for finding that defendant's act caused the death of the victim, we reverse defendant's murder conviction.

I

On June 29, 1983, defendant and four others from Keyport attended a party in the apartment of Lois Baker on the third floor of a three-story wood-framed building in Keansburg. Defendant, who claimed he was intoxicated, stated that he had smoked marijuana and consumed four beers before the party, and four more beers and four shots of Southern Comfort at the party. Paul Wade, one member of the Keyport group, became involved in two altercations with other guests, including Mike Kilpatrick. After the second altercation, Baker told everyone from Keyport to leave. On leaving, defendant and Wade vandalized a motorcycle that they thought belonged to Kilpatrick and removed the rear-view mirrors, which defendant placed outside Baker's apartment.

Within fifteen minutes after defendant left Baker's apartment, another guest noticed that the building was on fire. Everyone escaped, except Barbara Quartz, who had fallen asleep after drinking alcoholic beverages at the party. She died of asphyxiation due to smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide intoxication.

According to defendant, he set the fire by lighting a paper bag containing trash that he found in the hallway by Lois Baker's door. Defendant testified:

I picked up the bag and walked down the steps with it. I was just, you know, throwing it around making a mess, you know, and I set it down and I lit up a cigarette. And the match--I lit the paper bag on fire, you know, 'cause I thought maybe it would burn up the garbage, you know, not to spread or anything, just make, like make a mess of the bottom of the landing. And then, then I left.

* * * * * *

I put the match on the bag and lit the bag, the top of the bag on fire. I thought it would make a mess of things. I didn't understand. I mean I didn't figure that it would, you know, cause a fire and spread or catch on anything. I thought it would just, you know, burn the garbage and go right out. I didn't mean to hurt nobody.

The State's version of the setting of the fire differed materially from that of defendant. According to the State's experts Frederick Dispensiere of the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office, and Daniel Slowick, a fire insurance investigator, the fire was set by spreading kerosene between the ground floor and the second floor. Dispensiere concluded that the fire was deliberately set through the use of an "accelerant" at some point between those floors. He based his opinion on "[t]he degree of damage in the hallway, the absence of anything in that hallway combustible which could have created that much of a volume of fire, the depth of char, the rate at which the fire spread and the direction that it spread also." Dispensiere found "pour patterns" on the stairway between the first- and second-floor landings, which led him to suspect that an accelerant had been used in the fire. Gas chromatography tests performed on wood samples taken from this area of the building revealed the presence of kerosene. Baker kept kerosene in a plastic milk container outside the apartment, and seven days after the fire Dispensiere found a melted plastic container in the third-floor hallway. Slowick also concluded that the fire had been deliberately set through the use of kerosene. He found "pour patterns" at the top of the first-floor stairway. A lab analysis of wood samples that he took from this area revealed the presence of kerosene.

II

Initially we address the sufficiency of the evidence to submit to the jury the issue whether defendant knowingly or purposely killed the victim. At the end of both the State's case and of the entire case, defendant moved for a judgment of acquittal on that issue. The trial court denied both motions, and the Appellate Division affirmed, 213 N.J.Super. at 435, 517 A.2d 513. We agree.

As defined in N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a,

criminal homicide constitutes murder when:

(1) The actor purposely causes death or serious bodily injury resulting in death; or (2) The actor knowingly causes death or serious bodily injury resulting in death * * *.

Purposeful conduct is defined:

A person acts purposely with respect to the nature of his conduct or a result thereof if it is his conscious object to engage in conduct of that nature or to cause such a result. A person acts purposely with respect to attendant circumstances if he is aware of the existence of such circumstances or he believes or hopes that they exist. "With purpose," "designed," "with design" or equivalent terms have the same meaning. [ N.J.S.A. 2C:2-2b(1).]

Knowing conduct is defined:

A person acts knowingly with respect to the nature of his conduct or the attendant circumstances if he is aware that his conduct is of that nature, or that such circumstances exist, or he is aware of a high probability of their existence. A person acts knowingly with respect to a result of his conduct if he is aware that it is practically certain that his conduct will cause such a result. "Knowing," "with knowledge" or equivalent terms have the same meaning. [ N.J.S.A. 2C:2-2b(2).]

In assessing the sufficiency of the evidence, the relevant inquiry is whether "any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." State v. Brown, 80 N.J. 587, 592, 404 A.2d 1111 (1979) (quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 2789, 61 L.Ed.2d 560, 573 (1979)). On its case, the State introduced into evidence defendant's videotaped confession in which he made conflicting statements and ultimately admitted setting fire to the staircase carpeting. Additionally, the State adduced testimony describing the circumstances surrounding defendant's acts and the expert testimony of Dispensiere and Slowick that the fire was deliberately set with an accelerant. That evidence was sufficient for a jury reasonably to infer that defendant was practically certain that his conduct would cause serious bodily harm or death, or that his conscious objective in setting the fire was to cause serious bodily harm or death.

We likewise find that the evidence was sufficient to justify submission of the matter to the jury at the close of the entire case. In his own defense, defendant testified that he saw "little flames" on the bag but did not endeavor to put out the fire because he thought it would self-extinguish. He testified that he started the fire with a single match, that he merely intended to "make a mess of things," and that he did not intend to harm or kill anyone. Finally, defendant said that he did not know about the container of kerosene that Baker had placed in the hallway, and contended that there was no direct evidence that he knew the container even existed. Consequently, he contends that a reasonable jury could not conclude that he poured kerosene somewhere between the ground and second floor to accelerate the fire. We disagree.

Giving the State the benefit of all its favorable testimony, a reasonable jury could infer from the evidence that the defendant deliberately set the fire with the aid of kerosene. Given that inference and defendant's knowledge of the attendant circumstances, i.e., the wooden structure of the building, the number of people in the apartment, the fact that they, including Quartz, had been drinking, the evidence could support a finding under N.J.S.A. 2C:2-2b(1) and (2) that defendant knowingly or purposely caused death or serious bodily injury resulting in death. See State v. Reyes, 50 N.J. 454, 459, 236 A.2d 385 (1967).

III

We likewise find that the evidence was sufficient for the jury to conclude that the death of Quartz was causally connected to defendant's conduct. Our conclusion follows from our analysis of the definition of causation in N.J.S.A. 2C:2-3 and of the sufficiency of the evidence adduced to establish causation.

Defendant contends that even if a jury could conclude that he acted purposely or knowingly, supervening causes broke the chain of causation so that his conduct was not the cause of the death of the victim. Specifically, defendant argues that the death of Quartz was not a foreseeable, intended, or probable consequence of his conduct, but was caused by several intervening events or conditions. He points to the astroturf carpeting, which, according to his expert, Ralph Snavely, facilitated the spread of the fire because of its petroleum rubber base. He also asserts...

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