State v. Townsend

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
Citation897 A.2d 316,186 N.J. 473
PartiesSTATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Appellant and Cross-Respondent, v. Walter TOWNSEND, Defendant-Respondent and Cross-Appellant.
Decision Date15 May 2006
897 A.2d 316
186 N.J. 473
STATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Appellant and Cross-Respondent,
Walter TOWNSEND, Defendant-Respondent and Cross-Appellant.
Supreme Court of New Jersey.
Argued October 25, 2005.
Decided May 15, 2006.

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Debra A. Owens, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for appellant and cross-respondent (Peter C. Harvey, Attorney General of New Jersey, attorney).

Jay L. Wilensky, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for respondent and cross-appellant (Yvonne Smith Segars, Public Defender, attorney).

Lawrence S. Lustberg and Megan Lewis, Newark, submitted a brief on behalf of amicus curiae, New Jersey Coalition for Battered Women (Gibbons, Del Deo, Dolan, Griffinger & Vecchione, attorneys).

JUSTICE WALLACE, JR. delivered the opinion of the Court.

Twenty years after the death of his girlfriend, defendant was indicted for her murder. At trial, the State presented expert testimony related to battered women and battered woman's syndrome to convince the jury that the victim's dying declaration exonerating defendant was not credible. The jury found defendant guilty of murder. On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed, finding error in the admission of testimony about battered women and battered woman's syndrome and plain error in the trial court's failure to give a limiting instruction on the use of such testimony. The panel, however, found no due process violation based on the twenty-year pre-indictment delay. We granted the State's petition for certification and defendant's cross-petition. We now reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division and reinstate the jury verdict.

We conclude that the trial court properly admitted expert testimony concerning the common characteristics of battered women and battered woman's syndrome, and that the failure of the trial court to give a limiting instruction on the use of the expert's testimony was harmless error. We agree with the courts below that the twenty-year delay between the date of the crime and the date defendant was indicted did not violate defendant's due process rights. We remand to correct the sentence.


The State presented evidence at trial to show that on December 11, 1981, defendant lived with his girlfriend, Norma Williams, and her two sons, seven-year-old Jason and three-year-old Brian. That evening, defendant entered the home and told the two boys to go upstairs. The boys did so but stopped on the staircase and watched as defendant repeatedly struck their mother with a two-by-four with exposed nails until she was motionless. Defendant then picked her up and called the boys to accompany him to the hospital.

While leaving the driveway, defendant crashed his blue pickup truck through the gate to the garage. On the way to the hospital, defendant instructed Jason to tell the police that a red tow truck struck his mother, after which three men jumped out of the truck and beat her with sticks. Defendant threatened to kill Jason if he did not tell that story.

At the hospital, Williams was examined in the emergency room by Dr. Abrid. Williams was drowsy but conscious, her blood pressure was low, and she had alcohol on her breath. She had a cut over her eye, multiple bone swelling, and internal

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injuries. Dr. Abrid found no damage to the brain stem, and Williams's eye movements were normal. Dr. Abrid ordered oxygen and a blood transfusion for Williams.

The police were called to investigate. Patrolman Joseph Salvatore and his partner arrived at the hospital around 6:45 p.m. and tried to speak to Williams. After telling Salvatore she was struck by a car, Williams lost consciousness. Salvatore then located defendant and the boys in the waiting room and questioned them. Defendant told Salvatore that when he arrived home and found Williams bleeding and leaning against the gate to their home, he immediately drove her to the hospital. Jason told Salvatore that a red truck hit his mother and three men got out of the truck and beat her with sticks before leaving. Salvatore did not question Brian because of his youth.

Detective Theodore Pogorzelski arrived at the hospital around 9:30 p.m. After the doctor informed him that Williams was in critical condition and unable to talk, Detective Pogorzelski met with defendant and the boys. Jason repeated his story about the red truck, but when asked about the three men, he said he did not see them beat his mother.

At some point, Detective Pogorzelski was informed that he could try to speak to Williams. He told Williams the reason he was there and that her prognosis did not look good. Williams's only response was to moan. When the detective asked if defendant had hit her, Williams shook her head from side-to-side indicating "no." Then he asked her if a truck had hit her, and she replied by shaking her head "no." When the detective asked if a car struck her, she moved her head up and down indicating "yes." Williams did not respond when asked the color of the car. She died at 12:10 a.m., shortly after the questioning.

Meanwhile, Detectives Taylor and Pascillo were looking for evidence of a hit-and-run accident in front of Williams's home. They discovered that one of the chain-link gates to the driveway was damaged and had blue paint on it but found no debris, broken glass, or blood in the area. The police went door-to-door looking for witnesses but were unsuccessful. Later, when Officer Thomas Hoffman examined defendant's blue truck parked near the hospital, he observed recent damage to the left rear.

A few hours after Williams died, defendant and the boys were taken to the police station. Officer Hoffman claimed he overheard defendant tell Jason not to say anything to the police. At the station, defendant was separated from the boys. Initially, Jason was reluctant to talk to the police. When he decided to talk, he accused defendant of fighting with his mother and striking her with a board. Jason stated that defendant told him to tell the story about the red truck and the three men. He also said that defendant's truck hit the driveway gate on the way to the hospital.

Prior to interviewing defendant, Detectives Pogorzelski and Taylor informed him of his Miranda1 rights. After waiving his rights, defendant denied instructing Jason to tell the police that a red tow truck struck Williams and stated that he never threatened Jason. He claimed he was at the corner bar when Jason ran inside and exclaimed that a red car had smashed the gate to their driveway. Defendant said he immediately went home and discovered Williams on the driveway, moaning that a red car smashed through the gate.

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That same day, Detective Pogorzelski re-interviewed Jason in the presence of his two uncles. Jason again accused defendant of killing his mother. Because Brian was only three years old, the police did not question him.

Defendant consented to a search of the house he shared with the decedent. The police found blood on the couch but no weapons. Defendant explained that he had placed Williams on the couch before taking her to the hospital. Pursuant to a search warrant, the police searched defendant's truck. They were unable to find any evidence to support the theory that defendant had struck Williams with his truck.

The police canvassed the neighborhood again but located no witnesses. One neighbor, thirteen-year-old Annissa Gaines, was prevented from speaking to the police by her mother. The police completed the investigation without filing any charges against defendant. The State recognized the weaknesses in its case: seven-year-old Jason was the only witness who had implicated defendant and Jason had relayed several different stories. Additionally, Williams had indicated to Detective Pogorzelski that defendant had not hit her, and that a car had struck her.

Thereafter, Jason and Brian lived with relatives and not defendant. When Brian turned eighteen, he moved to Trenton. Defendant was also living in Trenton, and Brian visited him several times. In May 2001, Brian read a newspaper article about unsolved homicides that mentioned his mother. Brian contacted Jason and discussed the article. Later, Jason called the Mercer County Prosecutor's Office and requested that the case be reopened.

On August 2, 2001, the prosecutor reopened the investigation. Detective Albert DiNatale interviewed and obtained statements from several people who had lived near Williams in 1981. One neighbor, Beulah Ball, whose home shared a common wall with Williams's house, recalled that on the evening of December 11, 1981, she heard a female voice say, "Please, don't hit me anymore, please. Take me to the hospital."

Another witness, Annissa Gaines, the thirteen-year-old whose mother prevented her from speaking to police in 1981, said she saw defendant tap the driveway gate with his truck, back up, and then ram the gate. She remembered seeing a child in the window of the house but did not see anyone near the gate or lying on the ground. The next day she learned of Williams's death.

Patricia Brevard, a childhood friend of Williams, stated that defendant did not seem upset when he told her about Williams's death. Later, when defendant visited her, he admitted he had injured Williams before taking her to the hospital. Brevard claimed that she was afraid that if she reported that information to the police, defendant would harm her.

On August 10, 2001, Brian gave a formal statement outlining his version of the incident. He stated that while his mother was on the couch, he observed defendant repeatedly strike her with a board containing exposed nails.

A third son of Williams', Freddie Williams, also testified at trial. He was fifteen years old when his mother died. He had lived with his mother and defendant for about five years, but in 1978 or 1979 he moved in with his grandparents because he could...

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