Defendant’s Sixth Amendment Right to Confront A Witness | State v. Jackson
State v. Jackson:
Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.
In November 2014, a man witnessed an individual exiting his home carrying his TV. When he entered his own home, the victim found his TV, computer, and video game console missing. The victim described the man carrying his TV to police and alleged his suspicion of his ex-girlfriend’s involvement due to seeing her car several times before and after the theft occurred. The police detained two men who fit the description, and defendant identified a man named Javon Clarke as the person carrying his television. Defendant was the other detainee, and the victim recognized him as an ex-boyfriend of his ex-girlfriend. Based on the victim’s identification, the police arrested Clarke, who implicated defendant and the victim’s ex-girlfriend in the crime as well.
At trial, Clarke testified that defendant participated in the burglary. On cross-examination, defense counsel highlighted discrepancies between Clarke’s initial statement to police and his in-court testimony and asked Clarke about his plea bargain and the range of sentences he was facing. The state objected and the trial court sustained, wanting to avoid influencing the jury as to potential sentences since defendant had been charged with the same offenses as Clarke. The trial court barred all testimony about the maximum sentence Clarke faced, which in turn prevented the jury from hearing the effect that sentencing exposure had on Clarke’s mindset when negotiating his plea with the State. Cross-examination ultimately revealed that Clarke would only receive 180 days in county jail in exchange for his truthful testimony. During closing, the state noted that Clarke was never offered the lowest possible sentence and it was his sentencing court that imposed a lower sentence than that offered by the state. The jury ultimately convicted defendant of conspiracy to commit burglary, and the appellate division affirmed the conviction.
Subsequently, the defendant appealed from the appellate division’s judgment affirming defendant’s conviction for conspiracy to commit burglary. The main issue the Supreme Court of New Jersey had to examine was whether a defendant facing the same charges as a cooperating witness should be barred from exploring that adverse witness’s sentencing exposure. Since New Jersey state courts had not previously addressed the scenario in which a trial court limits cross-examination into the term of imprisonment a cooperating witness avoided by testifying for the government where the defendant and witness were charged with the same crime, the Supreme Court of NJ looked to how other state and federal courts interpreted and ruled on the specific issue. One fact they stated was that, “[m]ost federal courts have decided this issue without establishing a brightline rule, but instead based their determinations on whether the jury had otherwise heard enough information to evaluate the witness’s credibility.” See, e.g., United States v. Noel, 905 F.3d 258, 269 (3d Cir. 2018).
The Supreme Court vacated defendant’s conviction, ruling that under the circumstances, the jury should have received cooperating witness’s (Clarke’s) full plea agreement history through the defense counsel’s unfettered cross-examination, since it could implicate his potential bias and may have led to defendant’s full acquittal. The Supreme Court stated that defendant was deprived of his right to confrontation and denied a fair trial. Therefore, his conviction for conspiracy to commit burglary was vacated.
At Hark & Hark, we represent clients for appeals in Superior Court and in the Supreme Court of New Jersey for issues like the present case pertaining to when a defendant’s sixth amendment right to confront a witness is violated due to the fact that the defendant was facing the same charges as a cooperating witness and was barred from exploring that adverse witness’s sentencing exposure. We work hard to ensure that our clients receive exceptional representation so that they receive the most favorable outcome as a result.
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