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State v. Sanchez

February 5, 1996


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

The opinion of the Court was delivered by Stein, J. Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'hern, Garibaldi, and Coleman join in Justice Stein's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stein

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).


Argued October 10, 1995 -- Decided February 5, 1996

STEIN, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

The issue on appeal is the standard by which trial courts should evaluate motions for severance based on the claim that one codefendant will exculpate another if the two are not tried together.

Alex Sanchez and his brother Juan Sanchez were jointly indicted for second-degree robbery and related offenses. On January 23, 1988 Mary Ann Wyman was robbed in the parking lot of the Monmouth Mall in Eatontown. Witnesses identified Juan as the assailant and Alex as the person driving the get-away car.

On December 7, 1992, the day the joint trial was to begin, Alex moved for severance based on Juan's July 1988 affidavit in which Juan admitted committing the Wyman robbery with a man named Noel Manuel. At the time he signed this affidavit, Juan was serving a forty-year prison term with a twenty-year period of parole ineligibility in Pennsylvania. Under oath, Juan was questioned regarding his intentions to testify on his brother's behalf. Juan stated that he would not testify if he and Alex were tried jointly. Juan was unable to say for sure whether he would or would not testify at Alex's trial if severance was granted.

The trial court denied the severance motion, citing Alex's failure to demonstrate that Juan would testify at Alex's trial if severance were granted. The court also found the testimony inconsistent as to whether or not Alex was at the scene of the crime. The trial court was of the belief that the severance motion was being used as a device to get one of the brother's acquitted. In addition, the court found the motion untimely filed.

A jury convicted both Alex and Juan of all charged offenses.

On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed, holding that severance was warranted because there was a substantial likelihood that Juan would have offered exculpatory testimony for Alex if they had been separately tried.

The Supreme Court granted certification.

HELD: Because Alex Sanchez has failed to show that substantially exculpatory testimony would have been forthcoming had his severance motion been granted, he has not demonstrated prejudice sufficient to compel severance under Rule 3:15-2(b). The trial court, therefore, did not abuse its discretion in denying Alex Sanchez's severance motion.

I. Under the Rules of Court, defendants who are alleged to have participated in the same act or transaction constituting an offense can be jointly tried. Joint trials are the preferred course because they foster judicial efficiency and serve the interests of Justice by avoiding the inequity of inconsistent verdicts. However, the interest in judicial economy cannot override a defendant's right to a fair trial. Therefore, Rule 3:15-2(b) provides for relief from a prejudicial joinder. The decision whether to grant severance rests with the sound discretion of the trial court. (pp. 8-11)

2. If called to testify, a codefendant is likely to assert the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, thereby frustrating a possibly innocent defendant's attempt to present exculpatory testimony to the jury through the codefendant. Federal courts have demonstrated a strong preference for joint trials and routinely deny severance requests. In deciding whether to grant a severance motion, federal courts focus primarily on two factors: the exculpatory nature of the proffered testimony; and the showing that the testimony will be forthcoming in a separate trial. In federal courts, testimony does not qualify as "exculpatory" if it is insignificant, cumulative, or merely a vague or conclusory assertion of innocence. Further, the moving defendant cannot establish that the codefendant's testimony would be forthcoming in a separate trial if the codefendant's willingness to testify is conditioned on his being tried first. (pp. 11-20)

3. In evaluating severance motions that are based on the need for a codefendant's testimony, the trial court must focus on the substance and quality of the proffered testimony and attempt to ascertain the exculpatory value of that testimony. The court should distinguish between credible, substantially exculpatory testimony and testimony that is insignificant, subject to damaging impeachment, or unduly vague, conclusory, or cumulative. (pp. 21-23)

4. When a codefendant's offer to testify is conditioned both on the severance motion being granted and on his or her own case being tried first, and the proffered testimony is substantially exculpatory, the court should accommodate a codefendant's reasonable request regarding the timing of the separate trials unless there is a compelling reason not to do so. Moreover, unless the court is persuaded that the reliability and trustworthiness of the proffered testimony significantly outweigh the risk of perjury, severance should be denied. (pp. 23-24)

5. The Court agrees folly with the federal courts' tendency to grant severance in multi-defendant criminal cases only sparingly. The federal standard embraces the factors that are relevant to determining the appropriateness of severance. Accordingly, the Court adopts a broad standard that reflects those factors. Therefore, the trial court should sever a joint trial if the court is reasonably certain that (1) the defendant will call his or her codefendant as a witness in a separate trial; (2) the codefendant, although unwilling to testify at a joint trial, will testify at a separate trial either prior or subsequent to his or her own trial; and (3) the codefendant's proffered testimony is credible and will be substantially exculpatory. (pp. 24-25)

6. The Court's standard differs somewhat from the federal standard in that it recognizes that a codefendant's request to be tried before testifying in a separate trial is only a factor to be considered in the severance determination. A codefendant's conditional offer to testify should carefully be assessed by the court in determining whether the risk of perjury outweighs the likelihood that the proffered testimony is trustworthy. The focus should be on the exculpatory value of the proffered testimony, and not on whether defendant requests that he or she be tried before his or her codefendant. (p. 25)

6. The trial court properly rejected Alex's severance motion because there was not a sufficient showing that a grant of severance would have altered Juan's decision not to testify. Moreover, Juan's proffered testimony did not substantially exculpate Alex and the likelihood that Juan's testimony would have exculpated Alex was minimal. (pp. 26-28)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED.


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