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New Jersey Appellate Division Extends Urbina Self-Defense Rule to Defense of Others in Plea Allocution

by David Reutter

The Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division held that a defendant was entitled to post-conviction relief (“PCR”) based on his claim that his guilty plea was involuntary due to his counsel’s failure to explore the defense of others.

Anwar H. Belton appealed the denial of his PCR motion following a plea to first-degree aggravated manslaughter that resulted in an agreed-to 12-year prison sentence. The appellate court found that Belton, “in the course of his plea allocation, suggested a defense of others that was inconsistent with his guilt; his waiver of that defense was not knowingly made; therefore, he did not present a sufficient factual basis of guilt.”

The victim died after Belton was roused from his sleep by two women involved in an altercation with a man. As the man bit and continued to clamp onto the hand of one of the women, Belton put him in a head lock until the man was “snoring.” The man died at the scene. The trial court found these facts supported the charge and that Belton knowingly waived a defense of others. It also denied his PCR motion on that basis.

On appeal, the Superior Court reasoned that the principles articulated in the New Jersey Supreme Court decision State v. Urbina, 221 N.J. 509 (2015), applied to Belton’s case. Urbina held that “if a suggestion of self-defense is raised in a plea colloquy, then the trial court must inquire whether the defendant is factually asserting self-defense. If the defendant states he is not claiming self-defense, then the plea can be accepted. On the other hand, if the defendant claims that he used deadly force against the victim in the reasonable belief that his life was in danger, then the defendant is asserting that he did not commit the crime.”

Where a defendant is abandoning a claim of self-defense, a “thorough and searching inquiry” into the nature of that right must be made by the court. The Court discerned “no reason why the principles in Urbina would not apply with equal force to a suggested claim of a defense of others.” Both affirmative defenses exonerate the defendant and depend on honest, actual, and reasonable—but not necessarily accurate—belief that force is necessary, and once raised, the State bears the burden to disprove it.

Belton suggested he came to the aid of the two women and the “trial court minimized the threat the victim posed” to one of them. It said the woman could have “certainly” been subject to serious bodily harm by the victim biting her hand so firmly that she could not extricate it. “The jaw is a powerful instrument,” the Court wrote, “It can sever another’s digits.”

The Court held that the “trial court failed to explore [Belton’s] claimed defense, and failed to secure a knowing and intelligent waiver after an appropriate explication of applicable law. …” As such, the plea was not voluntary and knowing, entitling Belton to post conviction relief.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the denial of PCR and vacated Belton’s plea and conviction. The Court remanded the matter for trial. See: State v. Belton, 178 A.3d 74 (N.J. Super. 2017). 

 

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