State v. Thomas

Decision Date19 January 2022
Docket NumberDOCKET NO. A-4368-19
Citation470 N.J.Super. 167,269 A.3d 487
Parties STATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. William J. THOMAS, a/k/a William Thomas, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtNew Jersey Superior Court — Appellate Division

Joseph J. Russo, Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for appellant (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Joseph J. Russo, of counsel and on the briefs).

Lauren Bonfiglio, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for respondent (Andrew J. Bruck, Acting Attorney General, attorney; Lauren Bonfiglio, of counsel and on the brief).

Before Judges Hoffman, Whipple and Geiger.

The opinion of the court was delivered by GEIGER, J.A.D. Defendant William J. Thomas appeals from an August 2020 Law Division order denying his motion to for a Miller 1 hearing to correct an unconstitutional life sentence he received for a double murder he committed at age seventeen. Defendant was initially eligible for parole after serving thirteen years. Contending that parole data showed that mere eligibility for parole did not provide him a meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation, defendant argued he had the right to an adversarial hearing for the court to consider the juvenile offender sentencing factors enumerated in Miller, 567 U.S. at 477-78, 132 S.Ct. 2455.

The record demonstrates that defendant has remained infraction-free during the forty years he has been incarcerated, completed programs to address his behavior and substance abuse, attained a GED and vocational skills, and been found to be at low risk of recidivism by numerous evaluating psychologists. Despite these circumstances, defendant has been denied parole and received lengthy future eligibility terms (FET) seven times.

In an issue of first impression, we hold that defendant, who has now been imprisoned for more than four decades even though his sentence did not impose a specified period of parole ineligibility, has the constitutional right to an adversarial hearing to determine whether defendant "still fails to appreciate risks and consequences, and whether he has matured or been rehabilitated," utilizing the procedure recently adopted by our Supreme Court in State v. Comer, 249 N.J. 359, 370, 266 A.3d 374. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for the trial court to conduct that adversarial hearing.

We derive the following facts from the record. On May 6, 1980, defendant, who was seventeen years old, and his nineteen-year-old cousin, William Mancuso, murdered two teenage acquaintances, Lee Miller and June Johnson, who were hitchhiking. Defendant and Mancuso had been drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, and using methamphetamines. Mancuso drove the group to a wooded area in Egg Harbor Township where defendant murdered the two teens, using a tire iron as a weapon.

Mancuso saw Johnson sitting on the ground when defendant began striking her head and upper torso with a tire iron. The female victim attempted to flee, at which time Mancuso joined the attack. When Miller attempted to defend Johnson, defendant struck him with the tire iron. The two later died from their injuries.

The next morning, defendant, claiming no memory of the attack, left the state after Mancuso described what had happened. According to defendant, he was extremely drunk and high at the time of the murders and still does not remember most of the details of his crimes. Defendant thereafter enlisted in the Army and was transferred to Germany.

Mancuso confessed to police and identified defendant as the other perpetrator. Defendant was extradited and arrested in July 1981. Later that month, the trial court granted the State's motion to waive defendant to adult court. The waiver statute then in effect provided that the juvenile court may involuntarily waive jurisdiction if the State demonstrated that there was probable cause that a juvenile over age fourteen had "committed a delinquent act which would constitute homicide ... if committed by an adult," N.J.S.A. 2A:4-48, and "together with the absence of any reasonable prospects of rehabilitation of the juvenile" by age twenty-one, State in the Int. of C.A.H., 89 N.J. 326, 330, 446 A.2d 93 (1982).

In August 1981, an Atlantic County grand jury returned an indictment charging defendant with unlawful possession of a weapon (the tire iron), N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(d) (count one); and two counts of knowing murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(2) (counts two and three).

On February 1, 1982, defendant entered a non vult plea2 to the murder counts. On February 19, 1982, defendant was sentenced to concurrent life sentences with no parole disqualifiers. Defendant, who had been incarcerated since July 27, 1981, was awarded 207 days of jail credits. He is now fifty-eight years old.

During the sentencing hearing, the judge noted that Mancuso and defendant "stand before this [c]ourt as youthful offenders without adult or juvenile records." The judge made clear that he "failed to impose any minimum parole eligibility and elected not to impose consecutive terms because of the defendant's age, his lack of any prior arrests, his pursuit of a productive career, and his admission of guilt which is generally recognized as the first step to rehabilitation."

Mancuso pled guilty only to the murder of Johnson in return for the State's recommendation that he be sentenced to ten years in prison. On the record, the State explained that the reason for its recommendation was because Mancuso cooperated with law enforcement and exhibited a genuine sense of remorse. According to the State, defendant exhibited no such remorse. Mancuso was sentenced in accordance with the plea agreement to a ten-year term.3 Notably, the judge did not accept the State's theory that Mancuso was merely an accomplice.

In 1997, defendant sought post-conviction relief (PCR), alleging ineffective assistance of counsel during the juvenile waiver hearing and that his sentence was illegal due to the disparity of his sentence and Mancuso's ten-year term. On June 13, 1997, the trial court issued an oral decision that rejected both grounds raised by defendant without conducting an evidentiary hearing.

Defendant first became eligible for parole in May 1995, thirteen years after he was sentenced. He was denied parole and received a 120-month FET. Thereafter, defendant was denied parole six more times, most recently on December 16, 2020.4 Defendant appealed several of the New Jersey State Parole Board's (Board) final decisions.

Specifically, defendant appealed the Board's February 24, 2006 decision that denied parole and imposed an eighty-four-month FET. We affirmed. Thomas v. N.J. State Parole Bd., No. A-2649-05, 2007 WL 2376628 (App. Div. Aug. 22, 2007). He next appealed the Board's May 25, 2011 decision that denied parole and imposed another eighty-four-month FET. We affirmed. Thomas v. N.J. State Parole Bd., No. A-5980-10, 2012 WL 6214390 (App. Div. Dec. 14, 2012).

Defendant also appealed the Board's March 25, 2013 final decision that denied parole and imposed a 120-month FET. We found "the Board's decision [was] so wide of the mark and so fundamentally contradicted by the record," and reversed and remanded, directing the Board to reconsider defendant's eligibility for parole. Thomas v. N.J. State Parole Bd. (Thomas III), No. A-2943-13, 2015 WL 4602545 (App. Div. Aug. 3, 2015) (slip op. at 18).

We concluded that the record did not support the Board's determination that defendant was likely to commit a crime if released on parole.

In that regard, we noted that the Board had "failed to address the ten positive psychological evaluations performed on Thomas between[ ] 1991 and 2003[,] all of which consistently reported that Thomas had 'good insight' and maintained good impulse control and judgment." Id. at 17. We also concluded:

In denying parole, the Board improperly relied on prior parole hearings not part of the record and credited the summaries of Thomas's statements made by interested third parties over Thomas's own non-contradictory statements that he lacks memory of an event occurring over thirty years ago. Further, the Board illogically concluded that Thomas's false memory of the victims' drinking precludes him from having a lack of memory of other events.
Finally, the Board discounted positive reports and ignored the numerous positive psychological evaluations which contradicted the latest evaluation by [Richard Murcowski, Ph.D.]. We place little confidence in Murcowski's most recent report which inexplicably increased Thomas's recidivism score based on Thomas divorcing his wife and "new information available to this evaluator from the Parole Board interview." Not only is the report contradicted by the doctor's prior reports, but also the so-called "new information" is unidentified and not part of the record.
[ Id. at 17-18.]

Regarding defendant's extensive rehabilitation efforts, we noted:

In 1988, Thomas began attending weekly group therapy for behavior modification and emotional control. In 1991, Thomas completed a substance abuse program and has been attending meetings on a regular basis since that time. That same year, Thomas was classified as gang minimum status, the lowest level of security classification for an inmate with a life sentence. Throughout his prison term Thomas completed about twenty multi-week programs for self-improvement on such topics as "Successful Employment and Lawful Living," "Cage Your Rage, Anger Manager," and "Substance Abuse Personality Awareness."
In addition to his extensive participation in self-help programs, Thomas earned a GED in 1993, a certificate in refrigeration in 1994 and completed various vocational training programs. Since at least 1996, Thomas worked as a twenty-four-hour on-call electrician at three different prisons repairing electrical equipment inside the prison including cell doors, switch motors, and the cell locking devices, with minimum supervision. His work supervisors have consistently

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