Can a Witness’s Exclamatory Outbursts During Trial Testimony Warrant a Mistrial?
Appellate Docket No.: A-1675-18
Decided October 22, 2021
Submitted by New Jersey New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark
In a recent unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division of New Jersey reviewed whether a witness’s exclamatory outbursts during trial testimony warranted a mistrial, despite the Judge issuing limiting instructions immediately.
In State v. Sullivan, Ryan Tighe, a detective with the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, testified that on June 13, 2016, he applied for a search warrant in connection with an investigation of Chaz Sullivan, his corporation and L.D., his girlfriend, involving money laundering, theft by deception and other charges. Chaz is defendant’s brother. Chaz, L.D. and Chaz’s mother shared a residence in Perth Amboy. Defendant lived there until March or April 2016.
The search warrant was executed on June 14, 2016. L.D. testified the police seized electronic equipment, financial records, marijuana and U.S. currency. Chaz was arrested that day but L.D. was not arrested until a month later. Afterwards, L.D. claimed she spoke with some of Chaz’s friends to “see what [was] going on,” and that defendant followed her. She returned home later, going to bed at 2 a.m., dressed only in panties.
She was awakened about 4:30 a.m. by “glass breaking in [her] kitchen.” The sound was “coming from the back door.” She turned on a light, “and . . . looked into the kitchen to see [defendant] walking into my house with a gun.” Another person was there, too, and he held her “in a bear headlock” while defendant took things from the bedroom. Defendant told her “to give him the f…ing money or he’s gonna blow my f…ing brains out.” She claimed he hit her in the face with the gun, suggesting his brother was incarcerated because she was a “snitching b.tch.” She sustained two black eyes and a cut on her head. She received no medical treatment except for the “post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] it caused [her].” After they left, L.D. immediately drove to the police station.
Defendant was charged under Indictment 16-10-01648 with seconddegree conspiracy to commit armed robbery (Count One), N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1 and N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2; first-degree armed robbery (Count Two), N.J.S.A. 2C:15- 1; second-degree burglary (Count Three), N.J.S.A. 2C:18-2; three counts of aggravated assault charged in the fourth, third and second-degree (Counts Four, Five and Six), N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(b)(4), (2) and (1); second-degree unlawful possession of a weapon without a permit (Count Seven), N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b); and second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose (Count Eight), N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(a). Counts Four, Six and Seven were dismissed by the trial court before the case was submitted to the jury.
On defendant’s cross-examination of L.D., he asked her about a multidefendant indictment in which she was a defendant charged with first-degree racketeering or theft by deception. This was an apparent reference to the money-laundering indictment. L.D. denied the charges but eventually blurted out “[w]ell, all [eighty-nine] defendants, including you, was charged with it.” The court immediately instructed the jury, “[t]hat’s stricken, folks. Disregard that.”
Defendant then went on to mention that defendant sexually assaulted her, even though she wasn’t asked that question. That Judge indicated that it was stricken.
Defendant made an application the following day for a mistrial based on these statements and the Judge denied the application. Defendant was convicted of third degree burglary and appealed. The Appellate Division affirmed, finding the mistrial was not warranted, as these remarks were not solicited by the prosecution but by defendant in poorly executed attempts to cross-examine L.D. The remarks were isolated and the court immediately instructed the jury to disregard both remarks.
Defendant alleged prejudice, but it is clear the jury discounted much of L.D.’s testimony. Defendant was acquitted of armed robbery, second-degree robbery, theft, second-degree burglary, aggravated assault, and simple assault. There was evidence to support the third-degree burglary charge through Detective Rosario confirming the residence door was damaged and providing independent proof the structure was entered without a license or privilege to do so.
This case is important to understand to get a mistrial, the court considers the nature of the inadmissible evidence, the limiting instructions timing, and the tolerance for the risk of imperfect compliance with evidence. The court will weigh these factors in light of the record and decide whether a mistrial is warranted, as was not the case here.
If you or someone you know have been charged with any indictable offense or disorderly persons involving a search and/or questioning of police, contact the experienced attorney at Hark & Hark to ensure you are adequately defended, otherwise you could have negative impacts on your case like the defendant above.
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