No Harm No Foul–Harmless Error

Submitted by New Jersey Drug Crime Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

As mentioned in the last blog concerning State v. Firman, a reversal of a conviction is not an overly common occurrence even when then trial judge has made a mistake. This is because of the concept of harmless error. If at trial, a mistake by the judge, or conduct by one of the attorneys, threatens a fundamental right of the defendant to a fair trial, this is considered a structural error. Structural errors are the kind that may lead to a reversal. But not if they are harmless. State v. Sterling, a 2013 N.J. Supreme Court case explained that in order to overcome harmless error there must be some degree of possibility that the error led to an unjust result, and it must be sufficient to raise a reasonable doubt as to whether it led the jury to a verdict it otherwise might not have reached. In Firman, the State claimed that any harm done by allowing the detective to essentially testify as an expert was made harmless because the other evidence against the defendant was stacked. Here the judge felt that the expert testimony provided by the detective, guised as fact testimony, was prejudicial enough as to raise a reasonable doubt over what the outcome of the trial would have been without the error. So, here the error of allowing the testimony was not harmless.

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