Self-Defense Applies In Manslaughter Case
- July 17, 2015
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Jacob R. Gentry was charged with murder (N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a), aggravated manslaughter (N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4(a)) and reckless manslaughter (N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4b) after a fight with David Haulmark in which Gentry’s girlfriend and brother are alleged to also have been involved. Gentry maintained the killing was in self-defense as, while fighting with Haulmark, he was pinned to the ground, being choked and fighting for his life. At trial, the prosecution cross-examined defendant about statements which his brother had made to police which were hearsay, inadmissible at defendant’s trial and never entered into the trial by defendant and defendant’s brother did not testify in defendant’s trial. After the court failed to inform the jury that self-defense was not only a justification to murder but also to aggravated manslaughter, Gentry was convicted of first-degree aggravated manslaughter and third-degree endangering an injured victim (N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1.2) and sentenced, in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Criminal Part, Sussex County by Judge N. Peter Conforti to 30 years in prison subject to an 85 percent parole disqualifier under the No Early Release Act (NERA) (N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2). On Appeal in State v. Gentry, the NJ Appellate Division looked to State v. Rodriguez, 195 N.J. 165, 170 (2008) and State v. Kelly, 97 N.J. 178, 200 (1984), regarding the requirement of a jury charge regarding self-defense when the evidence, viewed most favorably to the defendant, supports the theory of self-defense. In Gentry, there was evidence presented that defendant and Haulmark worked together and were housed together for some time during which Gentry suffered repeated physical attacks and harassment at the hands of Haulmark and Haulmark’s friends which were corroborated by independent witnesses including security from Legend’s Resort wherein the workers were housed and other individuals who felt harassed by Haulmark. On the night in question, defendant claimed he feared for his life as Haulmark had him in a chokehold while on the ground and was biting him at the same time, all of which were supported by a physical examination of defendant’s body following the event. Defendant admitted to kicking Haulmark, 80 pounds heavier than defendant, in the head after extracting himself from Haulmark’s grip, out of fear that Haulmark would get back up and pursue him further. The defendant’s testimony to police indicated that he had no idea Haulmark was seriously injured or dead until the police revealed the information. In Rodriguez, supra, 195 N.J. at 172, the NJ Supreme Court specifically held that one who kills in the belief that deadly force is required to spare his or her own life ‘cannot be convicted of murder, aggravated manslaughter, or manslaughter.’ N.J.S.A. 2C:3-4(a) also sets forth the circumstances in which deadly force becomes acceptable as a form of self-defense. Once self-defense is established by testimony, it is the burden of the prosecution to disprove that the defendant acted in self-defense. State v. O’Neil, 219 N.J. 298 (2004), sets forth the principle that after sufficient evidence exists to support a self-defense charge to the jury, failure to instruct the jury that self-defense is a complete justification for murder and manslaughter defenses constitutes plain error. With regard to the prosecutor’s cross-examination with regard to the statement of the defendant’s non-testifying brother to the police, the prohibition is plainly stated in State v. Haskell, 100 N.J. 469, 478 (1985), “the out-of-court statement of a co-defendant is inadmissible against another defendant because admission of the statement violates the rule prohibiting hearsay and the defendant’s fundamental right to confront witnesses.” In this case, the witness was available and the defendant was offered no opportunity to cross-examine him at trial which, under State v. Weaver, 219 N.J. 131, 151 (2014), could have rendered the statement admissible. Multiple questions and comments in summation by the prosecutor clearly gave rise to prejudicial error in violation of Gentry’s rights under State v. Vandeweaghe, 177 N.J. 229 (2003); State v. Rucki, 367 N.J. Super. 200 (App. Div. 2004); and State v. Smith, 167 N.J. 158 (2001). Based on the cumulative errors at trial, the NJ Appellate Division reversed and remanded the matter. If you are facing charges of murder you are looking at a sentence of 30 years to life and even for lesser included offenses the sentence can be the same as life in prison depending on your age at sentencing. When confronting such charges, it is imperative that you have experienced and trusted criminal defense counsel at your side to ensure you have the best chance possible in fighting the case and protecting your rights. For more information about murder, aggravated manslaughter, assault or weapons charges in New Jersey visit DarlingFirm.com. This blog is for informational purposes only and not intended to replace the advice of an attorney.