IMPORTANT NEW JERSEY SUPREME COURT OPINION- CRIMINAL SENTENCING MATTER
On September 23, 2021, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued an opinion in State v Melvin and State v Paden-Battle.
The court held that pursuant to the New Jersey Constitution, a sentencing court may not consider a defendant’s alleged conduct for crimes for which the jury returned a not guilty verdict as that would violate fundamental fairness and due process. In both of these cases, the defendants who had been acquitted of murder but convicted of lesser counts were sentenced as if they had committed the murder by a preponderance of the evidence standard.
As the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion (written by Justice Pierre-Louis) stated:
Our Constitution’s guarantee of the right to a criminal trial by jury is “inviolate.” N.J. Const. art. I, ¶ 9. In order to protect that right, we cannot allow the finality of a jury’s not-guilty verdict to be put into question. To permit the re-litigation of facts in a criminal case under the lower preponderance of the evidence standard would render the jury’s role in the criminal justice process null and would be fundamentally unfair. In order to protect the integrity of our Constitution’s right to a criminal trial by jury, we simply cannot allow a jury’s verdict to be ignored through judicial fact-finding at sentencing. Such a practice defies the principles of due process and fundamental fairness.
The Supreme Court reaffirmed the important principle that a defendant who is acquitted of charges after trial retains the presumption of innocence.
We hold that the findings of juries cannot be nullified through lower-standard fact findings at sentencing. The trial court, after presiding over a trial and hearing all the evidence, may well have a different view of the case than the jury. But once the jury has spoken through its verdict of acquittal, that verdict is final and unassailable. The public’s confidence in the criminal justice system and the rule of law is premised on that understanding. Fundamental fairness simply cannot let stand the perverse result of allowing in through the back door at sentencing conduct that the jury rejected at trial.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THOSE WHO ARE CURRENTLY INCARCERATED?
This important Supreme Court decision may lead the way for those who were improperly sentenced to file a Motion requesting that they are resentenced according to the above decision.