In a major affirmation of the public's civil rights, the New Jersey Appellate Division today tossed out a prison sentence of life without parole eligibility, saying that the jury was not asked to make the required findings.

The conviction itself stays in place, however the case will require a resentencing.

On November 9, 2015, Michael Black was at home with his three children, ages seven, four, and three, in Hamilton Township's Cloverleaf residential development. According to reports the children later made to the police, the family dog "was barking at someone" outside, where the seven-year-old child saw "a flashlight." Black brandished a sword and went outside but, as the children explained, "someone had a gun outside and shot" their father with it. The seven-year-old child also stated Black re-entered the home, "opened the door really fast and . . . then he wanted us in the room for a little bit so the bad guy couldn't get us." The child reported his father still possessed the sword when he returned inside, "was bleeding" as he did so, and "then . . . was lying down on the floor because he got shot." 

At 7:39 p.m., after he had re-entered the home, Black called 9-1-1. Black provided his street address and stated, "I've just been shot." The operator then asked, "who shot you?" and Black responded, "I'm not sure, some man named Wolf." Black told the operator he had been shot in the back and urged the operator to "please hurry."

Black then died.

During the morning following Black's death, police arrested and charged Dennis Munoz with Black's murder. As Munoz explained to the police, he has been known his entire life as "Wolf."

A jury sitting in Atlantic County later convicted Munoz of knowing and purposeful murder, witness tampering, and possessory weapons offenses. Following its merger of offenses, the court imposed a life sentence without parole on the murder charge and a consecutive twenty-year sentence with a ten-year period of parole ineligibility on defendant's conviction for first-degree witness tampering.

Munoz appealed from his conviction and sentence. Represented by both himself and Assistant Deputy Public Defenders Stefan Van Jura and Tamar Yael Lerer, he argued that the trial court made erroneous evidentiary rulings, failed to provide identification and unanimity instructions to the jury, and erred by determining he was subject to a mandatory life sentence on the murder charge.

He further claimed that the court's purported errors, individually and cumulatively, warrant reversal of his convictions and sentence.

In a lengthy written decision released today, Appellate Division Judges Vernoia, Firko and Natali affirmed the convictions, but vacated the sentence, and remanded back to Superior Court for resentencing.

"Defendant argues, and the State agrees, the court erred in imposing the life sentence without eligibility for parole on his conviction for purposeful and knowing murder. The court imposed the sentence "pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(b)(4)" based on the apparent misunderstanding the defendant's conviction of the offense alone mandated imposition of a life sentence without eligibility for parole.

"The statute requires more.

"A life sentence without eligibility for parole is mandated under N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(b)(4)(b) where a defendant is convicted of knowing and purposeful murder under N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1) or (2), and "a jury finds beyond a reasonable doubt that any" of the twelve "aggravating factors" set forth in N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(b)(4)(a) to (l) "exist." Here, the jury convicted defendant of knowing and purposeful murder under N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1) and (2), but the jury was not asked to make any findings required under N.J.S.A. 2C:3(b)(4)(a) to (l) for the imposition of a mandatory life sentence parole under the statute. 

"The court therefore lacked the requisite jury finding supporting imposition of a mandatory sentence of life without parole on the murder charge "pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(b)(4)." The court erred by implicitly finding otherwise. We therefore vacate defendant's sentence and remand for resentencing," the judges concluded.

We have seen numerous times over the past number of months the higher courts tossing convictions and prison sentences on the basis that the search was warrantless. However, it appears that this is the first tossing of a life sentence without parole eligibility in the past while.

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