On May 13, 2020, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Atlantic County case of State v. Quashawn K. Jones. The principal issue under N.J.S.A. 2C:5-1 was whether phone calls demanding the murder of an adverse witness constituted the “substantial step” required to support an attempted murder conviction.
Justice Timpone wrote for a unanimous court in relevant part: We begin by noting the trial court’s observation that rarely do you have a victim who survives a shooting come into court to give direct, compelling, and definitive testimony about the horrors she was subjected to by a defendant. It is even rarer to have, in the same case, intercepted phone conversations from a county prison in which a defendant basically admits his guilt in his own words. Considering the rare circumstances in this case, we find that defendant took an intentional substantial step in planning the murder of A.A. during his incarceration. We consider defendant’s words and acts in tandem as part of the whole picture from which the jury could have drawn its inferences.”
With respect to the criminal purpose element, the record contains sufficient evidence that it was defendant’s “conscious object” to have A.A. killed. The State presented compelling circumstantial evidence of defendant’s intent to bring about the death of A.A. in an effort to keep her from testifying against him. Criminal purpose focuses on the intent of the actor to cause a criminal result . . . rather than on the resulting harm. The recorded phone conversations demonstrate defendant’s surprise and fury when A.A. first appeared in court and provided a statement against him. Defendant’s several comments — “he gotta down that, fuck that man them bitches is coming,” “fuck outta here ain’t nobody understanding my position yo that bitch is still out there running . . . and she’s coming to court,” and “I wouldn’t need a lawyer if [n-word]s was moving and doing what they supposed to be doing the bitch should have been dead already” — all clearly portray defendant’s reaction to A.A. appearing in court and his desperation to have her murdered so that she would not testify against him. The recorded phone calls in evidence exhibited defendant’s demanding and purposeful voice, tone, and mannerisms, not mere frustrations and hopes that A.A. would not appear in court to testify against him. The jury, by hearing the recorded phone conversations, could have reasonably inferred defendant’s criminal purpose for wanting A.A. dead.
The Court’s analysis raises the question of whether the justices were being results-oriented in light of the evidence of the defendant’s hope that the witness against him would be killed. “Rare” circumstances are usually not be a basis for finding a substantial step and criminal purpose to commit murder.