Eastwood, Bigelow and Jayne.
[26 NJSuper Page 461] The antecedent events in this criminal prosecution may be disclosed briefly. On September 19, 1952 the grand jury presented against James Christy, George Rabatin, Julius Litus and Frank Hegyi an indictment composed of two counts in the first of which it charged the defendants therein named with the perpetration jointly on July 1, 1952 of an atrocious assault and battery upon one Carl Revy. The second count accused them of the commission
jointly on the same occasion and upon the same person of a simple assault and battery.
The defendants were tried, and the petit jury returned the verdict: "Guilty against all four defendants on all counts." The defendants Christy and Rabatin were each sentenced to imprisonment in the New Jersey State Prison and they prosecute the present appeal.
Counsel for these appellants contends that the judge committed 11 errors in the conduct of the trial, many, if not all, of which necessitate the reversal of the judgments of conviction.
It is observed that substantially all of them pertain to the court's charge to the jury. It accordingly will be illustrative and expedient to reproduce verbatim et literatim those passages of the charge which have primarily attracted our attention.
Particularly noticeable is the court's characterization of the presumption of innocence. We quote:
"The Court has already told you that the State must prove its case and must prove it to you beyond a reasonable doubt. Now, what do we mean by that? As introductory to that, the Court will reiterate the criminal law has extended its charity to the accused by accrediting to him the legal presumption of his innocence until the contrary is shown, and shown beyond a reasonable doubt. He is always entitled to such a charge unless there has been a substantial admission on his part."
Thus the jurors heard the court explain that the law confers upon a defendant accused of crime the presumption of innocence as a charity to be accredited to him "unless there has been a substantial admission on his part." We have supposed the presumption of innocence to be an elementary, axiomatic, almost sacrosanct principle which for centuries has been embedded in the very foundation of the administration of our criminal law.
Greenleaf traces the origin of this principle to Deuteronomy and quotes Mascardus de Probationibus to disclose that the principle was in substance embodied in the laws of Sparta and Athens. True, the author of an article
in the North American Review , January 1851, stated that no express mention of the presumption of innocence as a legal principle is discoverable in the books of the common law earlier than 1802. Whether the assertions of those explorers of the law are true or mistaken, we shall not take the time to inquire. We do not, however, hesitate to express the conviction that in the law the presumption of innocence of one criminally accused is a principle to the benefit of which the accused is lawfully entitled rather than merely a charitable gratuitous bestowal.
Moreover the trial judge superimposed a vague qualification upon the right of the defendants to have the jury informed of the presumption. He stated that a defendant was "entitled to such a charge unless there has been a substantial admission on his part." There is in the criminal law and procedure an egregious distinction between an admission which may be of fact and a confession of guilt. To illustrate, an "admission" by a defendant that he was at the scene of the crime might be classified as a "substantial" one, yet it does not deprive the defendant of the presumption of innocence. However, the court did not impart to the jury any elucidative ...