Trantino v. New Jersey State Parole Bd.

Decision Date15 January 1997
Citation296 N.J.Super. 437,687 A.2d 274
PartiesThomas TRANTINO, Appellant, v. NEW JERSEY STATE PAROLE BOARD, New Jersey Department of Corrections and Donald Lewis, Supt., Respondents. Thomas TRANTINO, Appellant, v. NEW JERSEY STATE PAROLE BOARD and New Jersey Department of Corrections, Respondents.
CourtNew Jersey Superior Court — Appellate Division

Roger Lowenstein, for appellant (Edward A. Jerejian, Orange, on the brief; Mr. Lowenstein, on the supplementary brief).

Howard J. McCoach and Dianne M. Moratti, Deputy Attorneys General, for respondents (Joseph L. Yiannotti and Mary C. Jacobson, Assistant Attorneys General, of counsel; Jennifer L. Kleppe, Mr. McCoach, Ms. Moratti and Andrew R. Sapolnick, Deputy Attorneys General, on the brief; Mr. McCoach, on the supplementary brief).

Before Judges PRESSLER, STERN and HUMPHREYS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by

STERN, J.A.D.

Thomas Trantino was convicted of murder in 1964 and sentenced to die. The conviction was affirmed on direct appeal. State v. Trantino, 44 N.J. 358, 209 A.2d 117 (1965), cert. denied, 382 U.S. 993, 86 S.Ct. 573, 15 L.Ed.2d 479 (1966), reh'g denied, 383 U.S. 922, 86 S.Ct. 901, 15 L.Ed.2d 679 (1966). While our Supreme Court has found that Trantino "killed two police officers in 1963," In re Trantino Parole Application, 89 N.J. 347, 352, 446 A.2d 104 (1982), and that "Trantino was guilty of two murders," id. at 375, n. 9, 446 A.2d 104, it is undisputed before us that the indictment alleged only one count of murder and that only one sentence for murder was imposed. 1 Thus, when the Supreme Court invalidated the statute under which the death penalty for first degree murder was imposed, N.J.S.A. 2A:113-4 (now repealed), Trantino's death penalty was converted to a single sentence of life imprisonment. State v. Funicello, 60 N.J. 60, 286 A.2d 55 (1972), cert. denied, sub. nom. New Jersey v. Presha, 408 U.S. 942, 92 S.Ct. 2849, 33 L.Ed.2d 766 (1972). Under the Supreme Court's mandate, Trantino was "sentenced to life imprisonment, nunc pro tunc, as of the date the life sentence was initially imposed, the defendant to be entitled to the same credits as if initially sentenced to life imprisonment." Id. at 67-68, 286 A.2d 55. As a result of that sentence, "Trantino became eligible for parole in 1979," Trantino Parole Application, supra, 89 N.J. at 352, 446 A.2d 104, because a person sentenced to life imprisonment under N.J.S.A. 2A:113-4 was eligible for parole after twenty-five years less commutation time and work credits. N.J.S.A. 30:4-123.11 (repealed).

This appeal deals principally with the Parole Board's April 1996 decision to deny Trantino parole and to fix a future parole eligibility date (FET) of ten years hence.

I.

The facts regarding the brutal slayings of Sergeant Peter Voto of the Lodi Police Department and police trainee Gary Tedesco are detailed in Chief Justice Weintraub's opinion affirming the conviction:

On the evening of August 25, 1963 Trantino and Frank Falco committed a robbery in Brooklyn, following which they and some companions went to the Angel Lounge, a tavern in Lodi, New Jersey, for pleasure. During the early morning of the 26th, Trantino or someone else fired two shots in horseplay. Sergeant Peter Voto of the Lodi Police Department and Gary Tedesco, a young man who was about to be appointed a patrolman and who accompanied Sergeant Voto for a view of police routine, entered the tavern, presumably to investigate the report of gunfire.

Voto and Tedesco had been in the tavern earlier that morning. On the further visit following the gunfire just mentioned, Voto asked all of the patrons to establish their identity. Following inspection of identifying papers, Voto found a gun wrapped in a towel. Trantino thereupon seized the officer from behind, placed a gun to his head, cursed him and shouted that he would die. He ordered Voto to undress. Voto did so slowly, and as he did Trantino struck him repeatedly with the gun, forcing him to his knees. When Tedesco, who had gone out for a searchlight, re-entered, he was seized by Falco. Tedesco too was ordered to undress, and he did promptly. With Voto partially undressed and on the floor, almost unconscious from the blows, and with Tedesco stripped to his shorts, Trantino fired a number of shots at both, killing them almost instantly. There was testimony that Falco shouted to Trantino, "You're crazy. What are you doing? You're crazy," to which Trantino replied, "We are going for broke. We are burning all the way. We are going for broke."

Trantino and Falco fled, both returning to New York City. Falco was killed there a few days later by police officers who were trying to apprehend him. Trantino surrendered to New York authorities and was extradited to this State.

The resume of events given above was the State's version of the murders. In his defense Trantino testified that on the 25th he took two dexedrine pills and consumed a considerable quantity of liquor from the afternoon of that day to the time of the homicides on the 26th. He denied any recollection of the slaying of the officers, saying he recalled only a loud explosion, followed by a confusion of wild sound and light within which Falco appeared to be a devil with arched eyebrows. He claimed he next recalled entering the car of a Mrs. Norma Jaconnetta (she left the tavern hurriedly after the shooting) and leaving the car with Falco when she was unable to start it. He related a frenzied flight to the home of a Mrs. Patricia MacPhail (she too had been at the Angel Lounge and had left just before the officers were shot), and described the drive with her help to New York. He insisted those events were heavily clouded.

Although Trantino thus disavowed awareness of the homicides, Mrs. MacPhail testified he told her the policemen were killed, at first saying that Falco had killed them and later saying during the ride to New York City that it was he, Trantino, who had slain them and that he did so to help Falco who was wanted for murder in New York.

[State v. Trantino, supra, 44 N.J. at 361-63, 209 A.2d 117.]

The insanity defense was rejected at trial, and the Supreme Court questioned the sufficiency of the proofs to support its consideration. Id. at 367, 209 A.2d 117. The opinion noted that the diagnosis of defendant's expert "was sociopathic-personality disturbance, drug and alcoholic addiction with emotional instability, and depressive reaction, situational in character." Id. at 365, 209 A.2d 117. The facts regarding the murder, the diagnosis and Trantino's denial of recollection at trial each have significance with respect to the decision of the Parole Board before us.

II.

In 1980, Trantino was granted parole with restitution imposed as a special condition. However, the Law Division refused to set the amount of restitution in a murder case, and a number of issues had to be resolved in light of the adoption of the Parole Act of 1979, N.J.S.A. 30:4-123.45 et seq., L. 1979, c. 441, § 1 et seq., which had taken effect. In Trantino Parole Application, supra, the Supreme Court interpreted the Parole Act of 1979, a provision of which provides that inmates sentenced to life imprisonment pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:113-4 were not to be eligible for parole as provided in the new Act. Rather, their parole eligibility was to be computed pursuant to the 1948 Parole Act, N.J.S.A. 30:4-123.1 et seq. (repealed), which was in effect at the time of the murders committed by Trantino. See N.J.S.A. 30:4-123.51(j).

In Trantino Parole Application, supra, the Court analyzed the impact of the Parole Act of 1979 with respect to Trantino as a Title 2A offender and the decision to parole Trantino. The Court concluded that restitution could be imposed as a condition of parole for an inmate convicted of homicide based on specific criteria, id. at 361, 446 A.2d 104, but that the Parole Board imposed restitution as a condition of parole in Trantino's case based on standards which were "much too imprecise and broad." Id. at 363, 446 A.2d 104. Because "[t]he imposition of restitution as a parole condition in [Trantino's] case was not an independent, severable or free-standing factual determination made by the Board," id. at 364, 446 A.2d 104, the Supreme Court concluded that "modification of the Board's imposition of restitution as a condition of parole puts an entirely different cast upon its ultimate determination that there is no substantial likelihood that Trantino will commit future criminal acts if released" and determined that the Board had "the right to reconsider and redetermine" its prior determination. Id. at 364-65, 446 A.2d 104. According to Justice Handler's opinion for the Court, "[a] new development or new evidence relating to established facts or a material misapprehension concerning an essential matter which is critical to an agency determination can constitute a reasonable basis for reconsideration by the agency." Id. at 365, 446 A.2d 104. The Court therefore remanded the matter to the Parole Board "to reconsider and redetermine Trantino's fitness for parole." Id. at 377, 446 A.2d 104.

The Court also addressed the standards to be applied by the Board for purposes of making parole decisions with respect to Title 2A offenders following adoption of the Parole Act of 1979. The Court emphasized the difference in approach to the subject of sentencing and parole under Title 2A and 2C, the latter of which was adopted effective September 1, 1979. N.J.S.A. 2C:98-4. Justice Handler explained that the 1979 Parole Act limited Parole Board discretion and embodied presumptive parole (which took into account the punitive aspects of the sentences set by the Court). Id. at 368-70, 446 A.2d 104; see also N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6, 2C:43-7; N.J.S.A. 30:4-123.51. Under Title 2C, the judicial determination embodies the punitive aspects of the sentence and "[t]he parole decision must be confined solely to whether...

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