State v. Vasquez

Decision Date27 May 1993
Citation628 A.2d 346,265 N.J.Super. 528
PartiesSTATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Pedro VASQUEZ, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtNew Jersey Superior Court — Appellate Division

J. Michael Blake, Asst. Deputy Public Defender, for appellant (Zulima V. Farber, Public Defender, attorney, Mr. Blake, of counsel and on the brief and reply brief).

Catherine A. Foddai, Deputy Atty. Gen., for respondent (Robert J. Del Tufo, Attorney General, attorney, Ms. Foddai, of counsel and on the brief).

Before Judges J.H. COLEMAN, SHEBELL and CONLEY.

The opinion of the court was delivered by

SHEBELL, J.A.D.

Defendant, Pedro Vasquez, appeals his jury convictions of murder ( N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(1), (2)) and third-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose ( N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4d). He also appeals the sentence imposed of life imprisonment with a thirty- parole ineligibility term on the murder conviction and the concurrent term of three years on the possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose conviction.

This case involves the death of defendant's girlfriend, whose death was reported to the police by defendant's cousin, Raphael Freire. Defendant and the victim lived together in an apartment in Newark. Defendant's sole theory throughout the trial was that Freire, not defendant, killed her.

Defendant's cousin, Freire, testified that on February 29, 1988, he received a phone call from defendant. Defendant claimed there was an emergency and that he needed Freire to come to his home. Later, defendant told his cousin that he was having problems with his girlfriend. Freire recommended that defendant leave her if the situation was bad. On cross-examination, Freire testified that defendant told him she wanted to leave defendant.

The next day defendant allegedly came to Freire's home at approximately 10:00 p.m. and requested that Freire take him home. When they arrived at defendant's home, he told Freire he needed a "big favor." He wanted to borrow Freire's car because he had to throw something away. Freire told defendant to wait for the regular garbage removal, but defendant said he could not wait. Freire would not loan defendant the car, but agreed to help him.

Defendant made two trips into the apartment and returned with several small, dark-colored garbage bags, which he put in the trunk of Freire's car. Defendant then asked Freire to drive him to several different locations. At the various locations, Freire would park the car, and defendant would dispose of a bag nearby. Freire asked defendant what was in the bags, but defendant would not tell him. After they made the last stop, Freire testified that the following discussion occurred.

He [defendant] said "That was [the victim] in the bag," and I said "What you mean [the victim]?" He said "I killed her." I said "[Defendant], why you do that for?" He says "I just got mad at her, we had an argument and she tried to stab me," And he then showed me like a little wound on his arm ....

He said that she tried to stab him with a knife so then he grabbed her by the throat, he hit her, knocked her down, then he said he had stabbed her, then he said he dragged her in the bathroom, he took off all his clothing and he started just cutting her.

....

He had told me he put them [pieces of the victim's body] in the refrigerator, he had put them in the refrigerator and left them there overnight and then he came to pick me up that Tuesday.

Freire testified that he did not go directly to the police because defendant was his cousin, and Freire "had so much faith in him." Freire cleaned out the trunk of his car prior to reporting the events to the police. Freire claimed that defendant used defendant's mother's car to dispose of the "big portion" of the body.

The medical examiner who conducted the autopsy stated that the cause of death was asphyxia by strangulation. The body revealed small hemorrhages over the eyelids and face as well as scars on the neck which were compatible with fingernails. The victim had also suffered a stab wound to the left side of her chest. Although this wound entered the chest, it did not puncture her lung. The stab wound was also listed as a potential cause of death. The medical examiner offered his opinion that the victim died prior to being dismembered.

Various evidence recovered from defendant's apartment revealed the following. Human flesh was discovered on the bedroom floor. Dried blood was found on the back of a door jamb. An area near the bathroom tub drain and also the drain screen tested positive for blood. A swab taken from the trunk of a car registered to defendant also tested positive for blood.

The victim's sister testified that on February 28 or 29, 1988, her sister told her she wanted to leave defendant and return home to live. On February 29, she spent at least part of the day with the victim. They arrived at their mother's house at approximately 5:00 p.m. Defendant was there when they arrived, and the sister testified that, "[T]hey were sitting in the chair and the next thing I know he [defendant] jumped up and he had a knife in his hand and he pushed her out of the way and then he ran out of the house." The knife was approximately eight inches long.

Defendant was arrested on March 4, 1988. He had a minor bruise around his left eye and a minor scratch on his right shoulder. There were also small scratches on one of his fingers and on his wrist.

Defendant testified that when he arrived home on the afternoon of February 29 after visiting the victim's mother's residence, he attempted to repair the washing machine which was located next to the bathroom. At around 6:00 p.m., he noticed that it was getting dark outside and decided to find his girlfriend. Defendant walked around the neighborhood. As he was returning but still two houses away from his residence, he saw Freire coming down the stairs. Defendant did not enter the house because Freire told him that his girlfriend was not home.

Defendant, Freire, and Freire's five-year old son went to a local bar where they had a few drinks. After a short time, all three returned to defendant's residence. Freire stated that he was coming inside, but left his son in the back seat of the car. When they entered the apartment, defendant saw the victim laying on the couch, undressed from the waist down. Defendant stated that he called out to her, but she did not respond. He said he noticed "[f]oam coming out of her nose." Freire then told him that she was dead.

Defendant claimed he started yelling, and Freire punched him in the chest and told him to "shut up." When defendant said they should call the police, Freire told him not to. "[H]e said if I called the police they're not going to believe me because it happened in my house."

Freire then allegedly began "grabbing" the body and dragged it from the living room to the bedroom. Freire went out to his car to retrieve something and returned to the bedroom. Freire was in the bedroom for some time, and then walked into the living room carrying a long knife, approximately fourteen to eighteen inches long. Freire touched defendant's shoulder with the knife, and they walked into the bedroom. When they got near the bathroom, Freire insisted that defendant take the knife, which he did.

When defendant walked into the bathroom, he noticed the victim's face in the tub, and then saw that her left arm was missing. He testified he ran from the bathroom and tried to leave the apartment, but Freire stopped him by holding the knife at him. Defendant stayed in the living room while Freire returned to the bathroom. After some time Freire asked defendant if he had any bags. Freire eventually came out of the bathroom carrying one bag. They then left the house and went to the car. They drove around for a while, and Freire told defendant that he could not tell anyone what happened. Freire gave defendant five dollars and then dropped him off in front of defendant's house.

Defendant testified that he walked the streets all night and did not reenter his residence until the next afternoon. That night defendant went to Freire's house. They returned to defendant's apartment, and Freire started "pulling bags out of the freezer." Defendant claimed that they carried a total of six bags to the trunk of Freire's car.

They began driving around and when they reached an area near Avenue P, Freire insisted that defendant get a bag from the trunk. Defendant threw the bag into the weeds. The same thing happened at several other locations. At the various sites, either defendant or Freire would throw the bags out. At one point, they were pulled over by the police, and defendant merely asked for directions.

On cross-examination, defendant testified that he did nothing to ascertain whether his girlfriend was actually dead when he saw her on the couch. He did not check her, or call any medical personnel. Defendant denied ever using his mother's car. When asked about the injuries he had at the time of his arrest, defendant claimed that the victim cut him on the wrist with his knife while they were at her mother's house, but that they were only "playing." Defendant claimed that he and the victim planned to be married on April 2, 1988.

The only other person to testify on defendant's behalf was Edward Norton. Norton testified that he was with defendant and the victim on February 29, 1988 at approximately 6:30 a.m. They had been at a local bar the night before and went to Norton's house when the bar closed. Norton had been a printer for fourteen years, and while they were at his house, he showed defendant and his girlfriend wedding invitations.

In his brief on appeal defendant raises the following legal arguments:

POINT I: BY FAILING TO GIVE AN INSTRUCTION ON PASSION/PROVOCATION MANSLAUGHTER WHEN ASKED BY THE JURY TO EXPLAIN MURDER AND AGGRAVATED MANSLAUGHTER, THE TRIAL COURT DEPRIVED DEFENDANT OF DUE PROCESS UNDER THE FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT AND OF...

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