State v. Purnell

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
Citation601 A.2d 175,126 N.J. 518
PartiesSTATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Braynard PURNELL, Defendant-Appellant.
Decision Date15 January 1992

Page 518

126 N.J. 518
601 A.2d 175
STATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent,
Braynard PURNELL, Defendant-Appellant.
Supreme Court of New Jersey.
Argued May 7, 1991.
Decided Jan. 15, 1992.

[601 A.2d 177] Bernadette DeCastro, Asst. Deputy Public Defender, and James K. Smith, Jr., Deputy Public Defender, for defendant-appellant (Wilfredo Caraballo, Public Defender, attorney; Bernadette DeCastro, James K. Smith, and Claudia Van Wyk, Deputy Public Defender II, on the briefs).

Sandra M. Iammatteo, Deputy Atty. Gen., for plaintiff-respondent (Robert J. Del Tufo, Atty. Gen., attorney).

The opinion of the Court was delivered by

Page 523


The central question in this capital appeal is whether a jury may impose a sentence of death on the basis that the murder was committed in the course of a felony without being permitted to consider, in the guilt-innocence phase of the capital trial, the non-capital verdict of felony murder. We find such a procedure to be constitutionally defective. The right to trial by jury includes the right to have the jury consider "all of the possible offenses that might reasonably be found" from the facts of a case. State v. Ramseur, 106 N.J. 123, 271 n. 62, 524 A.2d 188 (1987). The State is not free to select which verdict it will permit a capital jury to return. By seeking a sentence of death predicated on an underlying felony committed in concert with the murder, the State necessarily affirms that there is a rational basis in the evidence for the jury to have considered the non-capital verdict of felony murder. Here, however, the State did not submit felony murder to the jury. Because the jury was not permitted to consider "all of the possible offenses," defendant was denied the right to a fair trial on the issue of his death-eligibility. The sentence of death must be vacated. The convictions of murder and related offenses entered in the guilt-phase of the trial are otherwise affirmed.



In a long series of cases, we have explained that a jury must decide the death-eligibility of capital defendants. The fact-finding role of a jury is especially crucial when, as in this case, the State and the defendant disagree on almost every fact alleged. The State asserts that defendant killed the victim, Lawrence Talley, during the course of a drug transaction and that defendant then stole drugs from the body of the victim. In that regard, the case evokes the pattern that we saw in State v. Perry, 124 N.J. 128, 590 A.2d 624 (1991), in which the defendant killed his drug supplier. The case differs markedly

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from Perry, though, in that defendant denies any involvement at all in the killing of the victim. Recall that in Perry the defendant admitted that he had grabbed the victim "by the neck" and that "the pressure of my grip strangled him." Id. at 140, 590 A.2d 624.

Although the State sought to impose a capital sentence on the basis of a murder committed in the course of a robbery, it did not indict defendant for the robbery. Nevertheless, at the guilt phase the State offered evidence that on the night of the murder defendant had possessed an amount of cocaine packaged in ziploc bags, known to be used by the victim in his drug trade. Having denied any involvement whatsoever in the killing of Lawrence Talley, defendant was not in a position to argue to the jury that an uncharged robbery provided the basis for a felony-murder [601 A.2d 178] verdict. Nevertheless, the court had a nondelegable responsibility to insure a fair trial.


The evidence clearly implicated defendant in the killing of Lawrence Talley in West Atco, New Jersey, on Friday, August 26, 1988. For purposes of review, we shall largely incorporate defendant's version of the facts. It was the State's theory that defendant had stabbed Talley during the course of an attempted drug transaction and had hidden the body in a hedgerow in defendant's backyard, where it was found two days later. Because no one ever saw defendant stab Talley and because there was no physical evidence connecting defendant with the crime, the State's case was entirely circumstantial.

The drug transaction.

A prosecution witness, Marie Simmons, testified that defendant would come to her house "two to three to four times out [of] the week" to "get high" on cocaine and that he usually brought with him a "twenty," meaning an amount of cocaine valued at $20. She testified that on Friday, August 26, at approximately 6:00 p.m., defendant had come to her home and

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had wanted "a sixteenth," meaning approximately one and one-half grams of cocaine. On defendant's request she went to a neighborhood playground where she met with Talley to negotiate a drug transaction with him. They disagreed over the purchase price, but Talley said that he would stop by her house later. Instead, Talley sent a confederate, Jeffrey Davis, to sell a $20 bag of cocaine to defendant and Simmons. Defendant refused that deal because, as Davis testified, defendant "wanted a bigger quantity." After Davis left the apartment defendant went to the playground himself to meet with Talley. Witnesses at the playground testified that defendant, Talley, and Davis left the playground together. According to Davis, although he had initially walked with defendant and Talley, he did not accompany them to defendant's house, due to defendant's objections to his presence.

The fight in defendant's backyard.

The scene now shifts to defendant's home on Pine Avenue. Shortly before 9:00 p.m., defendant's daughter, Dia, heard "a lot of noise, a lot of hollering" in their backyard. Dia ran outside accompanied by her two brothers, Dennis and Lord Tee. (Defendant is the natural father only of Dia and not of her brothers. Gretchen Shaw is the natural mother of all three children and is defendant's fiancee.) Dennis carried a machete outside with him. Once outside, Dia heard "[s]omebody running through the woods" and a person yelling, "don't leave me Jeff." As she approached the backyard, Dia saw her father grappling with another man. Eventually, the two men fell to the ground, with her father on top. Dia saw her father hit the man approximately two times. Dennis and Lord Tee saw defendant chase two men into the woods. Dennis heard "scuffling in the woods" and someone saying, "Jeff, he's trying to kill me." Both Dia and Dennis testified that the man with whom defendant was fighting was not Lawrence Talley.

As soon as they saw what was happening, Dia and Lord Tee ran to a neighbor's house to call the police. In her transcribed

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call to the police, Dia stated that "[s]omebody is trying to break in my house and now two guys are jumping my dad."

The neighbor ran to defendant's house, saw Dennis, and asked him, "where was they fighting at?" Dennis gave him the machete, and then the neighbor went "halfway back" to the rear of the house. He saw "back there on his knees" a man who told him that he was alright but that "they got away." As the man began to stand, the neighbor recognized him as defendant. He did not notice any bruises or marks on defendant.

Dennis then returned to the neighbor's house and told his sister that they did not need the police "because it was over." The police were called and told not to go to defendant's house. Nonetheless, the police arrived, spoke briefly with Dia, and performed a cursory search of the backyard. Soon afterward, Jeffrey Davis went to defendant's[601 A.2d 179] house and spoke with Dennis, asking for Talley. When told that Talley was not there, Davis went to Marie Simmons's house. After Davis explained to her what had happened, Simmons called the Winslow Township Police Department and local hospitals trying, without success, to locate Talley.

At trial, defendant attempted to prove that two people, Arthur Ellison and Gary Bey, had seen the victim alive late on the evening of August 26. Ellison testified that he had seen the victim speaking with Bey at the Maple Lake Inn, but indicated that he had seen them soon after dusk and not late that night. Bey did not testify.

The remaining events of the evening.

That night, Theresa Daniels, a co-worker of Gretchen Shaw, drove Gretchen home from work. Daniels testified that at about 10:00 p.m., after they had entered the house, "Lawrence, [defendant], and Gretchen started talking" in the kitchen and then went into the bedroom. (Neither the defense counsel nor the prosecutor questioned Daniels on her reference to the victim. Thus, we assume that "Lawrence" is an error in the transcript or refers to someone other than Talley.) Gretchen

Page 527

testified that defendant had told her he was "okay" but that he "almost had one." She did not notice any marks or scratches on defendant. As Daniels was getting ready to leave, defendant asked her if she could drop him off at the Maple Lake Inn.

Once at the Inn, Daniels decided to stay for a few minutes. Defendant borrowed her car. Marie Simmons testified that defendant had arrived at her house sometime between 10:00 and 10:30 that evening, driving "a little brown car, hatchback," presumably Daniels' tan 1981 Toyota Corolla. Simmons described defendant as having a cut on his right arm that "was oozing with blood." Another person who was at Simmons's house noticed that defendant had "a bruise right underneath his eye." According to Simmons, defendant gave her "a sixteenth" of cocaine that he had obtained in Camden. She described the cocaine as being in a "clear ziploc bag," the same sort used by Lawrence Talley. Defendant then allegedly injected himself with some of the cocaine while Simmons smoked some of it. Other people came in and out of the house. Defendant left, but later returned and gave Simmons "another sixteenth and a couple of twenties." Simmons testified that defendant had stayed at her house until 3:30 a.m., although members of his family claim that he was home much earlier than that.

The discovery of the body.

On Sunday, August 28,...

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