State v. Natale

Citation878 A.2d 724,184 N.J. 458
PartiesSTATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Appellant and Cross-Respondent, v. Michael J. NATALE, Defendant-Respondent and Cross-Appellant.
Decision Date02 August 2005
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)

Jeanne Screen, Deputy Attorney General argued the cause for appellant and cross-respondent (Peter C. Harvey, Attorney General of New Jersey, attorney; Ms. Screen, Mark Paul Cronin, Deputy Attorney General and Carol M. Henderson, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel and on the briefs).

Edward J. Crisonino argued the cause for respondent and cross-appellant.

Linda Mehling, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, and Steven G. Sanders, Chatham, argued the cause for amici curiae, Office of the Public Defender and Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey (Yvonne Smith Segars, Public Defender, attorney for Office of the Public Defender and Arseneault Fassett & Mariano, attorneys for Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey; Ms. Mehling, Mr. Sanders and Marcia H. Blum, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, on the joint briefs).

Justice ALBIN delivered the opinion of the Court.

In Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296, 124 S.Ct. 2531, 159 L.Ed.2d 403 (2004), the United States Supreme Court ruled that a sentence based on judicial factfinding that exceeds the maximum sentence authorized by either a jury verdict or a defendant's admissions at a plea hearing runs afoul of the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. That seemingly simple pronouncement has called into question the constitutionality of sentencing schemes across the nation.

Under New Jersey's Code of Criminal Justice, a defendant cannot be sentenced to a period of imprisonment greater than the presumptive term for the crime he committed, unless the judge finds one or more statutory aggravating factors. See N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(f)(1). The Code does not require that a judicial finding of an aggravating factor be encompassed by the jury verdict or that it be based on an admission by the defendant at a plea hearing. We now hold that a sentence above the presumptive statutory term based solely on a judicial finding of aggravating factors, other than a prior criminal conviction, violates a defendant's Sixth Amendment jury trial guarantee. To bring the Code into compliance with the Sixth Amendment in a way that the Legislature would have intended, we are compelled to eliminate presumptive terms from the sentencing process. Hereafter, without reference to presumptive terms, judges will sentence defendants within the statutory range after identifying and weighing the applicable mitigating and aggravating factors.

I.
A.

Defendant Michael Natale and his girlfriend Ginamarie Lerro lived together in an apartment in Runnemede, New Jersey. On January 10, 1999, believing that Lerro intended to leave him for her estranged husband, defendant exploded in a rage of violence in their apartment and brutally beat her over the course of an hour. Defendant struck Lerro in the head with a stereo speaker and candleholder, rammed her head into a wall, and ripped out clumps of her hair. As Lerro struggled to escape, defendant kicked and punched her in the head, face, and upper body, and repeatedly threatened to kill her.

As Lerro crawled down the hallway toward the front door, a neighbor who had overheard the violence knocked on it. Lerro begged the neighbor not to leave, telling him that defendant was going to kill her. She then somehow managed to slip past defendant. Once out the front door, she fell to her knees and clung to the neighbor's leg. Defendant pulled Lerro by the hair until she finally let go and threatened the neighbor, who then retreated to his apartment. Defendant continued to punch Lerro in the face, stopping only to rip a storm door off its hinges and pummel her with it.

With no let-up to the assault, defendant threw Lerro, who was wearing only shorts and a sweatshirt, onto the snow-covered ground and then dragged her by the hair, face down on the concrete sidewalk. Defendant bashed Lerro's face into a nearby wooden pillar and ripped off her clothing, exposing her to the bitter cold as she drifted in and out of consciousness. In the course of dragging Lerro back into the apartment, defendant smashed her head into the door and, once inside, beat her in the face and head with opera glasses and a ceramic statue, all the while threatening to kill her.

When the police eventually arrived, Lerro staggered from the apartment, bleeding and frantic. She was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where she was diagnosed as suffering from head trauma, fluid in her sinus, multiple contusions, and abrasions. The residual effects of the prolonged, vicious assault on Lerro were loose teeth, scars, memory deficits, and dizziness.

A Camden County Grand Jury indicted defendant for first-degree attempted murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-1, 2C:11-3(a) (count one); third-degree aggravated assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(b)(2) (count two); fourth-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(d) (count three); third-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(d) (count four); third-degree terroristic threats, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-3(a), (b) (count five); and third-degree criminal restraint, N.J.S.A. 2C:13-2(a), (b) (count six).

After a jury trial, defendant was acquitted of the attempted murder charge but found guilty of the lesser-included offense of second-degree aggravated assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(b)(1), and all of the remaining charges against him. Before imposing sentence, the trial court found four aggravating factors. The court determined that the offense "was committed in an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner." N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(a)(1). Given the severity of the injuries and their long-term effects on the victim, the court considered the "gravity and seriousness of harm inflicted on the victim." N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(a)(2). The court also noted that defendant subjected the victim to regular beatings and constant threats during their relationship and thus found that there was a risk that he would commit another offense.1 N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(a)(3). Last, the court determined that there was a need for both personal and general deterrence. N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(a)(9).2 The court found only one mitigating factor, that defendant had no prior criminal record. N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(b)(7). Based on those findings, the court sentenced defendant to a nine-year term of imprisonment on the second-degree aggravated assault conviction, subject to the No Early Release Act (NERA), N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2. Under NERA, defendant was required to serve 85% of that sentence, a period of seven-and-one-half years without parole eligibility. Defendant also received five-year terms on both the terroristic threats and criminal restraint convictions, with those two sentences running concurrent with each other and consecutive to the assault sentence. The remaining charges were merged into those convictions. Defendant's aggregate sentence was a fourteen-year state prison term with a seven-and-one-half-year parole disqualifier.

The Appellate Division vacated the NERA parole disqualifier because the second-degree aggravated assault verdict did not specify whether defendant inflicted serious bodily injury or attempted to do so. State v. Natale, 348 N.J.Super. 625, 627, 635, 792 A.2d 565 (App.Div.2002).3 This Court affirmed the Appellate Division and remanded, giving the State the option of letting a jury decide whether defendant caused serious bodily injury or foregoing the NERA parole disqualifier. State v. Natale, 178 N.J. 51, 53-54, 834 A.2d 1024 (2003) (per curiam) (Natale I).

On remand, the State elected not to pursue the NERA parole disqualifier. In resentencing defendant, the court enumerated the same aggravating factors and mitigating factor that it found in the first sentencing proceeding. Because it was clearly convinced that the aggravating factors substantially outweighed the one mitigating factor, the court again imposed a nine-year sentence on the second-degree aggravated assault conviction, and added a four-and-one-half-year parole disqualifier pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6(b). In all other respects, the sentence remained unchanged, leaving defendant with an aggregate sentence of a fourteen-year term with a four-and-one-half-year parole ineligibility period. Defendant appealed.

B.

In light of Blakely, supra, the Appellate Division determined that the sentences imposed by the trial court violated defendant's Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury because "`[t]he jury's verdict alone'" did not authorize the sentences. State v. Natale, 373 N.J.Super. 226, 235-36, 861 A.2d 148 (App.Div.2004) (quoting Blakely, supra, 542 U.S. at ___, 124 S.Ct. at 2538, 159 L.Ed.2d 403). The panel reasoned that based on the jury verdict alone, the court could not impose sentences exceeding the presumptive terms set forth in N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(f)(1), a seven-year term for second-degree aggravated assault and four-year terms for the third-degree offenses of terroristic threats and criminal restraint. Id. at 235-36, 861 A.2d 148. Because it found four aggravating factors, the trial court sentenced defendant above the presumptive terms, although still within the statutory ranges for second- and third-degree offenses. Id. at 229-30, 861 A.2d 148. Those sentences above the presumptive terms, the panel concluded, ran afoul of the Sixth Amendment because they were based on judicial factfindings, not jury findings. Id. at 236, 861 A.2d 148. The panel held New Jersey's sentencing scheme to be unconstitutional because "it permits the trial judge to increase the presumptive sentence" based on the judge's finding of aggravating factors, other than a prior conviction, and because it does not require a jury to determine those factors beyond a reasonable doubt. Ibid. The panel, therefore, reversed and remanded to the trial court "to consider the appropriate remedy." Ibid. The...

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