State v. Roach

Citation146 N.J. 208,680 A.2d 634
PartiesSTATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Winston ROACH, Defendant-Appellant.
Decision Date07 August 1996
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)

Page 208

146 N.J. 208
680 A.2d 634
STATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent,
Winston ROACH, Defendant-Appellant.
Supreme Court of New Jersey.
Argued Feb. 13, 1996.
Decided Aug. 7, 1996.

Joseph S. Murphy, Ringwood, for appellant.

Michael J. Williams, Deputy Attorney General, for respondent (Deborah T. Poritz, Attorney General of New Jersey, attorney).

Jay L. Wilensky, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, for amicus curiae, Public Defender (Susan L. Reisner, Public Defender, attorney).

The opinion of the Court was delivered by


This case stems from the gas station robbery and murder of two people in Newark, New Jersey. Five individuals were charged with these crimes. The evidence of the roles and conduct of the defendants in the commission of the charged crimes was conflicting.

Page 216

Four defendants were eventually tried in separate proceedings by the same prosecutor.

The defendant in this case was convicted by a jury of felony murders, aggravated manslaughters, armed robberies, conspiracy, and possession of weapons for unlawful purposes. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms with periods of parole ineligibility aggregating sixty years. Another defendant was tried before and sentenced by a different [680 A.2d 638] judge. He received concurrent life terms with parole ineligibility of thirty years.

Among the important issues this case presents are: (1) whether a prosecutor's use of conflicting theories in separate criminal proceedings violates the rights of a defendant to a fair trial; and (2) whether the disparity between the sentences of similar co-defendants convicted of the same offenses violates the sentencing guidelines for uniformity.


The defendant, Winston Roach, was indicted on eleven counts of conspiracy to commit robbery (second degree), armed robbery (first degree), purposeful and knowing murder, felony murder, unlawful possession of handguns without a permit, and possession of weapons for unlawful purposes (second degree). The other individuals indicted for these crimes were Billy Jackson, Lawrence Wright, and Kelvin Oglesby. Gregory Tucker was also indicted but the charges against him were later dismissed.

According to the State, on the evening of May 30, 1991, at approximately 10:15 P.M., Jose Lavoura and Carlos Suarez were preparing to close the Sunoco Gas station where they worked in Newark. At the same time, Tracy Gilliam drove into the station to buy gas and waited in his car for an attendant. He noticed that two African-American men were inside the station talking to two Latino men. About ten minutes later, Gilliam heard gunshots. Frightened, Gilliam immediately left the station. As he drove away, Gilliam "glanced back through his mirror" and saw "two [African-American] individuals running out" with Suarez running

Page 217

after them. Gilliam was unable to identify the two African-American individuals.

Milton Shackleford and Charles Green also heard the gunshots. Both were in a store across the street from the gas station. After hearing the shots, they went outside and saw Suarez and two African-American men running away. He also recognized co-defendant Lawrence Wright as one of the African-American men. According to Shackleford, the two African-American men got into a yellow and brown Cutlass Supreme automobile car that was parked on the corner of Lyons and Wainwright Streets. Suarez died from gunshot wounds.

When the Newark police arrived sometime between 11:00 and 11:30 P.M., they found Lavoura dead from a gunshot wound. There was $240 in Lavoura's pockets and $52 on top of a small desk. Between $1300 and $1400 was missing from the receipts. There were bullet fragments and live rounds from .22 and .25 caliber weapons in the office. Forensic reports showed that Lavoura died from .22 caliber gunshot wounds and Suarez died from .22 and .25 caliber gunshot wounds. There were no bullet fragments found outside the station office or on the street.

On June 25, 1991, Lawrence Wright surrendered to the Newark police and was arrested. Police identified three other suspects: Winston Roach, Billy Jackson, and Gregory Tucker.

On July 24, 1991, Investigator Louis Carrega of the Essex County Prosecutor's office and Detective Charles Conte of the Newark police questioned defendant. They told defendant that he was a suspect. Defendant was also Mirandized. Defendant denied any knowledge of the murders and refused to make a statement.

On August 8, 1991, Joseph Smith, a prison informant, told police that Wright said Jackson was the "shooter of both individuals."

On August 13, 1991, the police questioned Kelvin Oglesby. Oglesby implicated Wright and Jackson as participants in the robbery and shootings. Oglesby said that he and defendant were

Page 218

unaware of the robbery and shootings. Oglesby said that Jackson shot defendant after they argued about what had happened.

On August 15, 1991, Jackson was arrested in Bridgeton, New Jersey. Jackson confessed that he and defendant shot both victims. Before his trial, Jackson recanted and alleged that Wright was the sole shooter.

On August 16, 1991, Investigator Carrega and Detective Conte again questioned defendant. They told him that he was "viewed as a suspect in the murders." At that time, he was in police custody on an unrelated offense. He waived his Miranda rights.

[680 A.2d 639] Defendant confessed that he was involved in the robbery but only as a look-out. Defendant told police that Wright and Jackson entered the gas station, and that Jackson told him that he shot both victims. Defendant also stated that Jackson carried a .22 automatic chrome gun with a clip and that Wright carried a .25 caliber weapon. Defendant gave police a detailed statement. At trial, defendant unsuccessfully moved to suppress the statement.

Defendant elected not to testify and presented no witnesses. Shackleford, Gilliam, and Investigator Carrega testified for the State. Neither Shackleford nor Gilliam was able to identify defendant or to connect him with the crimes. Investigator Carrega testified about his August 16, 1991, interview with defendant and read defendant's entire statement into the record.

The court charged the jury about "both accomplice liability and the theory that the defendant might have been a principal."

Defendant was convicted of all counts except murder. The trial court at sentencing merged all the convictions into the felony murder convictions. As noted, it imposed two consecutive life sentences with a thirty-year parole disqualifier on each term. Defendant's total sentence was life with a sixty-year period of parole ineligibility.

On appeal, defendant raised numerous claims of error. The appellate court affirmed defendant's convictions and sentence. Defendant petitioned for certification, which this Court granted.

Page 219

142 N.J. 573, 667 A.2d 190 (1995). The Court granted the motion of the Public Defender for leave to appear as amicus curiae.

Defendant contends that the prosecutor falsely and unfairly argued to the jury that defendant was a principal in the commission of the crimes and, further, presented factually inconsistent positions in the separate criminal prosecutions of the other co-defendants. Defendant asserts that the presentation of false arguments tainted the jury's deliberations and, by relying on inconsistent positions in separate criminal proceedings involving the identical crimes and participants, the State engaged in prosecutorial misconduct that requires the reversal of defendant's convictions.


Defendant contends that the prosecutor's argument in summation to the jury that defendant was the shooter was wholly unsupported by the evidence.

To justify reversal of a criminal conviction, the prosecutor's conduct must "substantially prejudice the defendant's fundamental right to have a jury fairly evaluate the merits of his defense." State v. Bucanis, 26 N.J. 45, 56, 138 A.2d 739, cert. denied, 357 U.S. 910, 78 S.Ct. 1157, 2 L.Ed.2d 1160 (1958). The misconduct must be "so egregious that it deprived defendant of a fair trial." State v. Ramseur, 106 N.J. 123, 322, 524 A.2d 188 (1987).

Not every instance of misconduct in a prosecutor's summation will require a reversal of a conviction. There must be a palpable impact. State v. Smith, 27 N.J. 433, 460, 142 A.2d 890 (1958). Although prosecutors may suggest legitimate inferences from the record, they may not go beyond the facts before the jury. See State v. Perry, 65 N.J. 45, 48, 319 A.2d 474 (1974); State v. Farrell, 61 N.J. 99, 103, 293 A.2d 176 (1972). See also State v.

Page 220

Williams, 113 N.J. 393, 451-52, 550 A.2d 1172 (1988) (noting that prosecutor's use of extraneous information was deliberate attempt to "highlight victim's virtues in order to inflame the jury").

The prosecutor's summation reasonably suggested that defendant could have been either the lookout or the shooter. The jury could have found defendant guilty as a principal if it discredited defendant's testimony and considered how Shackleford and Gilliam could not clearly say that defendant was only a lookout.

Nothing in the record indicates that false or baseless accusations were made against defendant by the prosecutor. We conclude that the State's argument included reasonable inferences to be drawn from the evidence.

680 A.2d 640] B

Defendant also alleges prosecutorial misconduct in presenting alternative theories at the trials of his co-defendants. Defendant specifically points out that the State argued that Wright and Jackson were the two shooters at the trials of Wright, Oglesby, and Jackson. The State denies that it presented mutually exclusive, false, or misleading evidence. It contends that the evidence permits two factual scenarios: the shooters were either Jackson and Wright or Jackson and defendant.

This is not a case where the prosecutor destroyed the credibility of one witness to convict one defendant and then used that same witness to...

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