On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'hern, Garibaldi, Stein, and Coleman join in the Court's opinion.
(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).
State v. Isaac Wright, Jr. (A-110-95)
Argued March 12, 1996 - Decided May 8, 1996
A Somerset County jury found Isaac Wright, Jr., guilty of drug-related offenses involving the sale of cocaine. His convictions included a charge of being a drug kingpin within the meaning of N.J.S.A.2C:35-3. On that charge, Wright was sentenced to a mandatory life term, with a parole-ineligibility provision of twenty-five years.
Wright appealed his convictions and sentence. The Appellate Division affirmed all of the convictions except that based on the drug kingpin charge. A majority of the Appellate Division held that the instructions to the jury were inadequate on the kingpin charge. One Judge Dissented on that issue. The Dissenter concluded that the conviction should not be reversed because in light of substantial evidence against Wright, the jury was not misled by the erroneous instruction.
Because of the Dissent below, the State appealed as of right to the Supreme Court.
HELD: The failure of the trial court's instructions to the jury to define or explain the role of a drug kingpin and the necessity for the jury to make a determination that defendant performed such a role requires a reversal of the conviction.
1. The Supreme Court previously determined in State v. Alexander that a trial court's jury instructions on a drug kingpin charge had to inform the jury that it must find that the defendant occupied a high-level position of authority in the drug distribution or manufacture scheme. The defendant had to be found to be a "leader" in the organization, someone who exercises substantial authority and control over the operation. (pp. 4-6)
2. Wright's trial occurred before Alexander was filed. The trial court essential paraphrased the statutory provisions with minimal amplification. Without the benefit of Alexander, the trial court failed to include the statements of legislative policy and purpose that the Court determined were a "material element of the crime." (pp. 6-7)
3. The adequacy of the evidence did not counteract or overcome the inadequacy of the jury instruction. (p. 7)
The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.
CHIEF JUSTICE WILENTZ and JUSTICES HANDLER, POLLOCK, O'HERN, GARIBALDI, STEIN, and COLEMAN ...