State v. Moretti, s. A--143

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
Citation52 N.J. 182,244 A.2d 499
Docket NumberNos. A--143,A--144,s. A--143
Parties, 37 A.L.R.3d 364 STATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. John J. MORETTI and Marietta Schmidt, Defendants-Appellants.
Decision Date28 June 1968

George R. Sommer, Newark, for defendant-appellant, John J. moretti.

Richard A. Walsh, Newark, for defendant-appellant, Marietta Schmidt (Raymond A. Peck, Jr., Bloomfield, attorney).

James R. Zazzali, Asst. Prosecutor, for plaintiff-respondent (Joseph P. Lordi, Prosecutor of Essex County, attorney, James R. Zazzali, Newark, on the brief).

The opinion of the court was delivered by


Defendants John J. Moretti, Marietta Schmidt, and Lawrence Gianettino were convicted in the Essex County Court of conspiracy to commit an unlawful abortion on Sylvia Swidler. N.J.S. 2A:98--1, 2, N.J.S.A.; N.J.S 2A:87--1, N.J.S.A. 1 Gianettino died shortly after the trial. On the appeal of Moretti and Schmidt, the Appellate Division affirmed the conviction with one judge dissenting. 97 N.J.Super. 418, 235 A.2d 226 (App.Div.1967). Moretti and Schmidt appealed to this Court under R.R. 1:2--1(b).

On the evidence the jury could find that Mrs. Schmidt arranged with Moretti, a physician, to have an abortion performed on Mrs. Swidler. The abortion was to be performed by Gianettino, an inspector for the New Jersey State Board of Barber Examiners. Unknown to the defendants, Mrs. Swidler was a special investigator for the Essex County Prosecutor's Office. Gianettino appeared at about eleven o'clock one evening at the Swidler home pursuant to an appointment with Mrs. Swidler. She paid him $600 in marked money and they went upstairs to her bedroom where the abortion was to be performed. As Gianettino removed instruments to perform the abortion from a bag he had brought with him, the police who had been secreted in the house arrested him. The State concedes that Mrs. Swidler was not pregnant.

It has been held that under our statute, N.J.S. 2A:87--1, N.J.S.A., an essential element of the crime of abortion is that the woman be pregnant. State v. Sturchio, 131 N.J.L. 256, 36 A.2d 301 (E. & A. 1943); State v. Colmer, 45 N.J.Super. 236, 243, 132 A.2d 325 (App.Div.), certification denied, 25 N.J. 44, 134 A.2d 539 (1957). The defendants contend that since it was impossible to commit an abortion upon Mrs. Swidler because she was not pregnant, they cannot be convicted of a criminal conspiracy to commit an abortion. The argument runs that if no violation of the law was to be accomplished by the act of the defendants, they cannot be held for conspiracy to do that act. The majority of the Appellate Division rejected this argument, while the dissenting judge found it to be ground for reversing the convictions.

The crime of conspiracy is distinct from the substantive offense which the conspirators plotted to commit. Pinkerton v. United States, 328 U.S. 640, 643, 66 S.Ct. 1180, 1181, 90 L.Ed. 1489, 1494, rehearing denied 329 U.S. 818, 67 S.Ct. 26, 91 L.Ed. 697 (1946). The essence of the statutory crime of conspiracy is the joining together of the conspirators with an unlawful intent. State v. Dennis, 43 N.J. 418, 423, 204 A.2d 868 (1964). It is this unlawful purpose upon which they agreed which makes a conspiracy punishable once any overt act is committed in furtherance of it. As Justice Heher said for this Court in State v. Carbone, 10 N.J. 329, 338, 91 A.2d 571, 575 (1952): 'The union is invested with a potentiality for evil that renders the plan criminal in itself, and punishable as such if an act be done to effect its object.' Here, there can be no doubt that if, as the jury found, there was an agreement among the defendants, its purpose was to commit an unlawful abortion and the conspirators took substantial steps in an endeavor to accomplish this end. That, unknown to them, Mrs. Swidler was not in a condition to be aborted in no way negates their clearly manifested intent to commit a criminal act. Such concerted intent, coupled with an overt act, is punishable whether or not the contemplated crime is consummated. United States v. Bayer, 331 U.S. 532, 542, 67 S.Ct. 1394, 1399, 91 L.Ed. 1654, 1661, rehearing denied 332 U.S. 785, 68 S.Ct. 29, 92 L.Ed. 368 (1947). That a factor unknown to the conspirators makes it impossible for them to complete their intended crime in no way lessens the degree of culpability involved in the criminal combination. People v. Nathanson, 389 Ill. 311, 318, 59 N.E.2d 677, 680, certiorari denied, 325 U.S. 872, 65 S.Ct. 1412, 89 L.Ed. 1990 (1945) (holding that in a prosecution for conspiracy to commit an abortion it was not necessary to prove the woman's pregnancy); 2 Craven v. United States, 22 F.2d 605 (1st Cir. 1927), certiorari denied, 276 U.S. 627, 48 S.Ct. 321, 72 L.Ed. 729 (1928) (holding that the defendant could be convicted of conspiring with others to smuggle imported liquor even though he had been deceived by the substitution of liquor of domestic origin).

The case has been argued as though, for purposes of the defense of impossibility, a conspiracy charge is the same as a charge of attempting to commit a crime. It seems that such an equation could not be sustained, however, because, as discussed above, a conspiracy charge focuses primarily on the Intent of the defendants, while in an attempt case the primary inquiry centers on the defendants' Conduct tending toward the commission of the substantive crime. The crime of conspiracy is complete once the conspirators, having formed the intent to commit a crime, take any step in preparation; mere preparation, however, is an inadequate basis for an attempt conviction regardless of the intent. See State v. Schwarzbach, 84 N.J.L. 268, 270, 86 A. 423 (E. & A. 1913). Thus, the impossibility that the defendants' conduct will result in the consummation of the contemplated crime is not as pertinent in a conspiracy case as it might be in an attempt prosecution. However, we need not pursue this point since we are satisfied that even if we treat the present appeal as an attempt case the defense of impossibility does not shield the defendants.

In our view, this case is indistinguishable in principle from cases such as State v. Meisch, 86 N.J.Super. 279, 206 A.2d 763 (App.Div.), certification denied, 44 N.J. 583, 210 A.2d 627 (1965). In Meisch, defendant was convicted of attempted larceny. It was held that it was no defense that the drawer into which the defendant thrust his hand contained no property which could be the subject of larceny. Likewise it should be no defense in an attempted abortion case that the woman, because not pregnant, could not be the subject of an abortion. As the Illinois Supreme Court said:

'An attempt may be made to commit a crime which it is impossible for the person making the attempt to commit because of the existence of conditions of which he is ignorant. Whenever the law makes one step toward the accomplishment of an unlawful object with the intent of accomplishing that object criminal, a person taking the step with that intent and capable of doing every act on his part to accomplish that object cannot protect himself from responsibility by showing that because of some fact of which he was ignorant at the time it was impossible to accomplish the purpose intended in that case.' People v. Huff, 339 Ill. 323, 331, 171 N.E. 261, 262 (1930).

In that case it was held that the defendant was guilty of an attempted abortion although the woman was not pregnant and therefore, under a statute similar to ours (see n. 2, supra), the substantive crime of abortion could not be committed.

The defense of impossibility in a prosecution for an attempted crime has resulted in a confused mass of law throughout the country and the principles announced in Meisch and Huff, supra, are the subject of much dispute. Compare, People v. Jaffe, 185 N.Y. 497, 78 N.E. 169, 9 L.R.A.,N.S., 263 (1906) with People v. Gardner, 144 N.Y. 119, 38 N.E. 1003, 28 L.R.A. 699 (1894). See cases discussed in Wechsler, Jones and Korn, The Treatment of Inchoate Crimes in the Model Penal Code of the A.L.I Attempt, Solicitation, and Conspiracy, 61 Colum.L.Rev. 571, 578--85 (1961). See also, Osborn v. United States, 385 U.S. 323, 333, 87 S.Ct. 429, 434, 17 L.Ed.2d 394, 401 (1966) where Justice Stewart, speaking for the Court, questioned whether 'the doctrine of 'impossibility' with all its subtleties' should have continued validity. The defense has been extensively discussed by both courts and commentators. See, e.g., People v. Rojas, 55 Cal.2d 252, 10 Cal.Rptr. 465, 358 P.2d 921, 85 A.L.R.2d 252 (1961); State v. Elliott, 206 Or. 82, 289 P.2d 1075 (1955); People v. Moran, 123 N.Y. 254, 25 N.E. 412, 10 L.R.A. 109 (1890); United States v. Thomas, 13 U.S.C.M.A. 278, 32 C.M.R. 278 (1962); Ventimiglia v. United States, 242 F.2d 620 (4th Cir. 1957); O'Malley v. United States, 227 F.2d 332 (1st Cir. 1955), certiorari denied 350 U.S. 966, 76 S.Ct. 434, 100 L.Ed. 838 (1956); Woo Wai v. United States, 223 F. 412 (9th Cir. 1915); Booth v. State, 398 P.2d 863 (Okl.Cr.App.1965); Perkins, Criminal Law, pp. 476--500 (1957); Arnold, Criminal Attempts--The Rise and Fall of An Abstraction, 40 Yale L.J. 53 (1931); Keedy, Criminal Attempts at Common Law, 102 U.Pa.L.Rev. 464 (1954); Sayre, Criminal Attempts, 41 Harv.L.Rev. 821 (1928); Smith, J.C., Two Problems in Criminal Attempts, 70 Harv.L.Rev. 422 (1957); Wechsler, Jones and Korn, supra (pts. 1 and 2), 61 Colum.L.Rev. 571, 957.

Our examination of these authorities convinces us that the application of the defense of impossibility is so fraught with intricacies and artificial distinctions that the defense has little value as an analytical method for reaching substantial justice. Many courts hold that where there is a 'legal impossibility' of completing the substantive crime the defendant cannot be guilty of an attempt, but where there is 'factual impossibility' the accused may be convicted. We...

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