On appeal from Bergen County Court.
For reversal -- Chief Justice Vanderbilt, and Justices Heher, Wachenfeld, Burling, Jacobs and Weintraub. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Burling, J.
The three defendants were convicted of violations of the narcotic laws of this State in the Bergen County Court, Law Division. They appealed to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, and we certified prior to a review below.
In many instances of appellate review the court's responsibility is to require observance of established rules which are designed to afford a fair trial to the parties involved. The challenge is most keenly felt in the field of criminal procedure where instances of doubt are resolved most favorably to the accused. This not only to rectify injustice for the present but to insure fairness in the future.
Charles Curcio, Benjamin and Joseph Licchi were charged upon three indictments with conspiracy to manufacture, possess, control and sell morphine, heroin and cocaine; the unlawful manufacture and sale of these narcotics; maintaining a dwelling for the keeping and selling of the drugs. The Licchi brothers were found guilty of all these charges; Curcio was convicted on the conspiracy indictment and the unlawful manufacture indictment.
One of the principal witnesses for the State was one John E. Jackson, reputedly a doctor of science and philosophy with degrees from Sorbonne University and the University of Heidelberg. Jackson was ostensibly engaged in research in the fields of industrial and organic chemistry. Actually, he marketed his abilities as a specialist consultant in the manufacture of narcotic drugs to those illegally pursuing the trade.
The evidence would justify the following conclusions: That Jackson was intimately concerned with the alleged operation of the defendants in that he advised them on the procedure for converting morphine into heroin and how to test the purity of the narcotics; that when equipment was needed for the manufacturing process he was the purchasing agent for the defendants and if flaws developed in the production or the product Jackson was called in to remedy the situation.
The record contains evidence that the alleged combine was terminated by the early part of 1955 when federal and
state agents searched the homes of the Licchi brothers. Jackson, according to the testimony produced in the State's case, deserted his comrades prior to this time and had disclosed the alleged operation to police authorities. His testimony was crucial to the State's case.
The story which Jackson related was noticeably consistent, and for an elderly man his memory of events that transpired in the relationship with the defendants was remarkable. In view of this it was especially important to the defense to thoroughly test the witness' credibility and because of his own involvement to reveal whatever interest he might have in a conviction of the defendants. In brief, did he buy his peace from the prosecution?
Clearly, this was a line of inquiry which the defendants were entitled to exhaust. State v. Hogan, 13 N.J. Misc. 117 (Sup. Ct. 1935), affirmed 115 N.J.L. 531 (E. & A. 1935); State v. Black, 97 N.J.L. 361 (Sup. Ct. 1922). The philosophy is expounded in State v. Spruill, 16 N.J. 73, 78 (1954), where Mr. Justice Heher stated:
"The basic question is one of interest. Interest is no longer a disqualification; but it is a circumstance that may be used to impeach the witness. The interest of a party or a witness in the event of the cause is a factor to be considered in assessing his credibility. At common law a witness was rendered incompetent to testify by reason of interest in the outcome of the action; and, while the incompetency has been removed, the bias that such interest would occasion is still to be reckoned with in determining the probative force of the testimony. Every fact or circumstance tending to show the jury the witness' relation to the case or the parties is admissible to the end of ...