State v. Taylor

Citation403 A.2d 889,80 N.J. 353
PartiesSTATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Raymond George TAYLOR, Defendant-Respondent.
Decision Date21 June 1979
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)

Edwin H. Stern, Deputy Atty. Gen., for plaintiff-appellant (John J. Degnan, Atty. Gen., attorney; Edwin H. Stern, Ann Zeloof and Helen E. Szabo, Deputy Attys. Gen., of counsel and on the briefs).

Roy H. Tanzman, Asst. Deputy Public Defender, for defendant-respondent (Stanley C. Van Ness, Public Defender, attorney).

The opinion of the court was delivered by


The sole question presented by this appeal is whether a defendant charged with a series of heinous crimes, facing a maximum sentence greatly exceeding life imprisonment, should be entitled to vacate his plea bargain because he had not been informed that some of the charges might be merged for sentencing purposes. We considered this issue, in a somewhat different context, in State v. Nichols, 71 N.J. 358, 365 A.2d 467 (1976). In an unreported opinion the Appellate Division, relying on Nichols, held that the defendant should be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea in this case. We disagree. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division and reinstate that of the trial judge, denying the defendant's motion to vacate his plea.


A nine count indictment was presented against defendant Raymond George Taylor by a Camden County Grand Jury on August 17, 1976. The complaint arose out of an incident on August 6, 1976 in which defendant allegedly shot and killed James Liberati and Carlos Brandon in a dispute over the price of drugs he was seeking to acquire from them. The indictment contained two separate counts, charging defendant with the unlawful, premeditated and felonious murder of Liberati and Brandon, a violation of N.J.S.A. 2A:113-1 or N.J.S.A. 2A:113-2; 1 two counts charging Taylor with the murder of each victim while armed, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2A:151-5; two counts charging defendant with the robbery of Liberati and Brandon, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2A:141-1; two counts charging Taylor with committing those robberies while armed in violation of N.J.S.A. 2A:151-5 and one count charging defendant with carrying a handgun without a permit, in contravention of N.J.S.A. 2A:151-41(a). In addition, a separate single count accusation was issued against Taylor on October 14, 1976 charging him with the unlawful possession of a .45 caliber automatic pistol without a permit on June 14, 1976 in an unrelated incident. This alleged conduct was also contrary to N.J.S.A. 2A:151-41(a).

At a Retraxit hearing held on October 14, 1976 defendant informed the trial court that he wished to enter into a plea bargain with the State, under which he would retract his plea of not guilty and enter a plea of Non vult to the two murder counts and guilty to the weapon accusation; in return, there would be a dismissal of all other charges and a recommendation by the State of a total sentence of not more than fifty nor less than forty years for the two murders, and a concurrent five to seven year sentence for the weapon charge.

The record reveals that the trial judge made studious efforts to comply with the safeguards of R. 3:9-2 before accepting defendant's pleas. The court considered signed statements by the defendant explicitly reciting the counts of the indictment and accusation, their corresponding potential penalties and the terms of the plea agreement, as well as defendant's intent to abide thereby. Taylor acknowledged both orally and in writing that he had agreed to the plea bargain on his own free will and that he understood the ramifications of his decision. The trial judge ascertained that defendant had discussed his alternatives thoroughly for several hours with his counsel and his father. The court satisfied itself of the factual basis underlying the pleas. Taylor's own confession acknowledging that he "shot two guys over a drug transaction when one of them came at me" was considered together with three statements by witnesses for the State corroborating defendant's role in the drug-related homicides. These statements included an eyewitness account indicating that Taylor had shot the victims in cold blood without any immediate physical provocation and suggested that the murders may have been premeditated.

Since defendant's version, if credible, may have afforded an excuse of self-defense, the trial judge made certain that defendant had considered the option of raising this contention at trial before agreeing to the plea bargain. The record reveals that defendant had, in advance of the hearing, after discovery of the State's witnesses' statements, discussed the possibility of self-defense with his counsel, and, apparently, discounted it. During the hearing the trial judge told the defendant, "if there's any possibility, Mr. Taylor, that you think you're innocent or you've got a legal defense to this, I want to make sure you have your day in court." Later, just prior to accepting defendant's plea, the trial judge again warned him to consider the matter carefully because it would be difficult to retract the pleas of Non vult and guilty once they were formally entered. The defendant stated he had no doubt in his mind and continued to insist, as he had throughout the hearing, that he wished to abide by the plea bargain and arranged for pleas to be entered in accordance with its terms.

Before sentencing, the defendant wrote a letter to the trial court and made a motion seeking to retract his pleas of Non vult and guilty. His counsel valiantly asserted that Taylor's actions were conscientiously motivated but indicated that he himself had reservations about the wisdom of the motion. Taylor argued that he had not fully understood the doctrine of self-defense and now wanted to raise this excuse, that he had been under valium medication at the time of the previous Retraxit hearing and that he had entered the plea because of "threats" from the prosecutor. The trial judge was not impressed. The motion to retract was rejected and sentence was entered in accordance with the original plea bargain, an aggregate State prison term of forty to fifty years for the murder counts inclusive of a five to seven year concurrent term on the separate weapon accusation; all other charges were dismissed.

An appeal was taken in which defendant, for the first time, argued that he should be permitted to withdraw his guilty plea because he had been misinformed by both the court and his own counsel when he entered the plea bargain as to the potential extent of penal exposure had he elected to proceed to trial and then been convicted on all counts. Specifically, he maintained that under the principles of State v. Nichols, supra, he should have been informed that the robbery and armed robbery counts might have merged with the murder charges. The omission of these facts, defendant argued, had "undoubtedly * * * influenced" the plea below. He maintained essentially that since the plea was not entered into with a full understanding of the consequences of his alternatives, it was not "intelligent" and therefore should be vacated. It is worth noting, however, that defendant has never argued that he would not have entered the Non vult and guilty pleas had he known of the possible merger. Indeed, the main thrust of his present appeal to this Court is that had he known that the potential sentences at stake were less he may have been able to secure a better bargain.

Counsel on both sides referred to the possibility of merger in their colloquies with the trial judge. As the Appellate Division found, however, there was no persuasive evidence showing that "defendant himself had the slightest notion of what 'merger' meant." Moreover, the trial judge had, at the initial Retraxit hearing, meticulously underscored at great length that defendant, in the absence of a plea bargain, could be consecutively sentenced for each of the nine indictment counts and thus faced a potential maximum of two life terms plus seventy-seven years on the indictment and an additional seven year term on the unrelated accusation. Under these circumstances, it is appropriate to proceed on the assumption that Taylor was not told of the possible merger of the robbery and armed robbery charges with the murder charges. Such a merger would have reduced Taylor's theoretical penal risk by fifty years, two lives plus thirty-four years instead of two lives plus eighty-four years.

The further question is whether such misinformation is sufficient to vitiate an otherwise valid plea. As an initial matter we must decide upon the proper standard of review of defendant's latest claim. Under our rules, a more stringent standard applies where a defendant moves to retract his plea after sentencing than where he makes a similar motion before sentencing. R. 3:9-2 provides that the trial court shall not initially accept a plea of guilty or Non vult until it determines it was made "with an understanding of the nature of the charge and the consequences of the plea." R. 3:9-3(e) adds that "If at the time of sentencing the judge determines that the interests of justice would not be served by effectuating the agreement reached by the prosecutor and defense counsel, the defendant shall be permitted to withdraw the plea." R. 3:21-1 states that "A motion to withdraw a plea of guilty or non vult shall be made before sentencing, but the court may permit it to be made thereafter to correct a Manifest injustice." (emphasis added). See State v. Deutsch, 34 N.J. 190, 197-198, 168 A.2d 12 (1961); also, State v. Herman, 47 N.J. 73, 76-77, 219 A.2d 413 (1966); State v. Daniels, 38 N.J. 242, 249-250, 183 A.2d 648 (1962), Cert. den. 374 U.S. 837, 83 S.Ct. 1885, 10 L.Ed.2d 1057 (1963).

Although defendant did not specifically allude to merger in making his motion to retract the pleas of Non vult and guilty, he did indicate that prosecutorial "threats"...

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