NJ Appellate Court Affirms Denial of PCR Petition in State v. Vargas: Hark & Hark Offers Experienced Post-Conviction Relief Representation

State of New Jersey v. Zabdiel Vargas

Docket No. A-3008-20

Decided April 10, 2023

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

In a recent unpublished opinion, the Appellate Court of New Jersey decided defendant’s appeal from a February 12, 2021 order denying his petition for post-conviction relief (“PCR”) without an evidentiary hearing.

In November 2017, the State filed an accusation against defendant charging him with two counts of first-degree murder, second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, and second-degree unlawful possession of a weapon. Defendant had allegedly shot two victims on a public street. He eventually pled guilty to first-degree aggravated manslaughter and second-degree manslaughter. In exchange for his plea of guilt, the State recommended defendant serve a sixteen-year prison term subject to the No Early Release Act (“NERA”), N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2, on the first-degree aggravated manslaughter offense, concurrent to a five-year term for the second-degree manslaughter offense, subject to NERA. The State also agreed to recommend dismissal of the two remaining counts and that defendant’s aggregate sixteen-year sentence run concurrent to a three-year prison term imposed under another indictment. The trial judge accepted defendant’s plea after defendant provided a sufficient factual basis.

Four months after being sentenced in accordance with the plea agreement, defendant appealed his aggregate sentence, arguing his mental health condition was overlooked by the sentencing judge. After hearing the appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed defendant’s sentence, finding that the sentence imposed was “not manifestly excessive or unduly punitive and did not constitute an abuse of discretion.” Defendant filed a timely PCR petition in September 2019.

In his PCR petition, defendant contended that his counsel was ineffective by: (1.) misleading defendant about the plea agreement; (2.) preventing defendant from informing the trial court about his mental condition and failing to present same as a mitigating factor; (3.) advising defendant to plead guilty despite defendant’s assertion he acted in self-defense; (4.) failing to provide defendant with discovery; (5.) neglecting to file any motions, investigate, or visit defendant sufficiently and; (6.) failing to use an interpreter while reviewing the plea forms.

The trial judged denied defendant’s PCR petition, articulating that defendant provided no support that his counsel during the plea misled him or that defendant had any other understanding as to what his plea agreement was. The judge also rejected defendant’s claim that he was prevented from speaking about his mental health issues during the plea colloquy. The judge did not find defendant’s plea counsel ineffective for failing to try defendant’s case on the theory of self-defense and did not find defendant’s plea counsel was ineffective for failing to provide him with “complete discovery.” Ultimately, the trial court found that defendant failed to demonstrate how he was prejudiced by pleading guilty before receiving complete discovery. Defendant appealed.

To succeed on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must satisfy the two-prong test enunciated in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). (1.) A defendant must show counsel’s performance “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness” and “counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the ‘counsel’ guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment, and (2.) A defendant “must show that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense.”

Here, the Appellate Court indicated in its written decision that they were satisfied that the trial judge correctly determined defendant failed to satisfy either Strickland prong and defendant was not entitled to an evidentiary hearing based on the strong evidence the State put forth against defendant, and defendant’s exposure for a much lengthier aggregate prison term if he was convicted of the two homicides at trial. Therefore, the court affirmed the February 12, 2021 order for the reasons expressed by the trial judge in his oral and written opinions.

At Hark & Hark, we are experienced attorneys who represent clients in Superior Court for issues like the previously discussed case pertaining to appealing orders denying petitions for post-conviction relief. We work hard to ensure that our clients receive exceptional representation in order for them to receive the most favorable outcome in their case as a result.

We offer payment plan options to clients financially incapable of providing full payment upfront. If you are facing a similar situation to that of the defendant in this case, please call us to discuss the matter. At Hark & Hark, we represent clients for any case in any county in New Jersey including Atlantic County, Bergen County, Burlington County, Camden County, Cape May County, Cumberland County, Essex County, Gloucester County, Hudson County, Hunterdon County, Mercer County, Middlesex County, Monmouth County, Morris County, Ocean County, Passaic County, Salem County, Somerset County, Sussex County, Union County, and Warren County and any town including Audubon, Gloucester City, Oaklyn, Audubon Park, Gloucester Township, Pennsauken, Barrington, Haddon Heights, Pine Hill, Bellmawr, Haddon Township, Pine Valley, Berlin Borough, Haddonfield, Runnemede, Berlin Township, Hi-Nella, Somerdale, Brooklawn, Laurel Springs, Stratford, Camden, Lawnside, Voorhees, Cherry Hill, Lindenwold, Waterford, Chesilhurst, Magnolia, Winslow, Clementon, Merchantville, Woodlynne, Collingswood, Mt. Ephraim, and Gibbsboro.



Criminal Civil Lawyer

Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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