The Prejudicial Straw That Broke The Camel’s Back: State vs. Rivera, October 12, 2014

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

Prejudicial Events Leading to Mistrial in Criminal Case

In trials the defense will fight to suppress evidence that is prejudicial or object to behavior or words from the prosecutor that may prevent their client from receiving a fair trial. Sometimes these single events are so prejudicial or infringe so greatly on a defendant’s right to a fair trial that on their own they constitute a mistrial. Often times they are minor transgressions and the trial continues. After all a defendant is entitled to a fair trial but not a perfect trial. There are cases however where so many prejudicial and inappropriate events occur during a trial as to add up to a mistrial. Such is the case of State v. Rivera decided in the Appellate Division on October 10, 2014.

This case involved a defendant who was convicted of second and fourth degree aggravated assault for a stabbing that occurred during a fight outside a liquor store. Because the appeal is based on the conduct of the trial not on the underlying facts of the case we will not go into further detail. The description of the trial found in the Opinion and also by every first-hand account of the trial that has been given to media makes the trial sound like a soap opera.

Examples of Inappropriate Conduct by the Prosecutor

Firstly, the prosecutor made his opening statement using a PowerPoint presentation that presented a picture of the defendant with giant lettering that said “GUILTY OF: ATTEMPTED MURDER.” Using a PowerPoint on its own is not improper as it is just a tool for delivering a message. What is important is the content of the message itself. There is nothing wrong with a prosecutor stating that he believes the defendant if guilty if it is specified that the belief is based solely on the evidence presented at trial. However during an opening argument no evidence has yet been presented.

As the trial progressed the behavior of the prosecutor took a turn for the more bizarre when he climbed into the jury box as the defense counsel attempted a cross-examination of a witness. With the approval of the Court the defendant had been utilizing the State’s table and the defense believed the prosecutor’s antics were meant to indicate to the jury that he was afraid of the defendant. During the prosecutor’s own cross-examination of a witness he revealed the defendant had a prior conviction “for resisting arrest by force” which was barred from admission at trial.

The Cumulative Effect of Inappropriate Behavior Leads to Mistrial

It is likely that none of these actions on their own would constitute the level of egregious misconduct warranting a reversal of the defendant’s convictions. However added up they have a cumulative effect and as a result his convictions were reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

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