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State v. G.S.

July 24, 1996

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
G.S., DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



The opinion is the Court was delivered by Handler, J. Justices Pollock, O'hern, Garibaldi, Stein and Coleman join in Justice HANDLER's opinion, Chief Justice Wilentz did not participate.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Handler

(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 of New Jersey v. G.S. (A-46-95)

Argued January 3, 1996 -- Decided July 24, 1996

HANDLER, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

In this case, G.S. was indicted in Sussex County for repeated acts of sexual molestation of his stepdaughter, L.K., over a three-year period ending in 1987. Some of the evidence admitted at trial related to acts of sexual molestation that allegedly occurred in Monmouth County over a period of time before the offenses charged in the Sussex County indictment allegedly happened. In 1979, charges against G.S. of endangering the welfare of a child were dismissed when G.S. was accepted into the Monmouth County Pretrial Intervention Program (the Monmouth County evidence).

The trial court permitted the State to admit the Monmouth County evidence, under N.J.R.E. 404(b) to: 1) illustrate that G.S. intended to engage in sexual contact with his stepdaughter for the purpose of his own sexual gratification, an element of the charged offense; and 2) explain why L.K. did not confide in her mother about the sexual abuse occurring in Sussex County.

The trial court instructed the jury that such other-crime evidence may not be considered as demonstrating that G.S. had a preDisposition to commit the offenses charged, but failed more specifically to explain to the jury the relevance of that evidence to any issue in dispute and, further, to so restrict its consideration of that evidence.

The jury convicted G.S. of the offenses charged. On appeal, a majority of the Appellate Division reversed the convictions, finding that the trial court's instructions were insufficient because they failed explicitly to state that the evidence was admitted to: 1) demonstrate why L.K. never informed her mother of the Sussex County sexual abuse; and 2) establish G.S.'s intent. According to the majority, the failure to give more specific instructions enabled the jury to use the other-crimes evidence as proof of G.S.'s culpability for the Sussex County offense. One member of the panel Dissented.

The State appeals as of right based on the Dissent in the Appellate Division. The sole issue on appeal is whether the failure of the trial court to give a limiting instruction restricting the use of other-crime evidence constituted reversible error.

HELD:

The trial court's instructions failed to indicate the specific purposes for which the other-crime evidence could be considered. Nonetheless, an examination of all of the testimony and evidence, defense counsel's use of the other-crime evidence, and the trial court's cautionary instruction indicates that the jury was not misled into using the other-crime evidence as demonstrating G.S.'s criminal propensity. As such, the trial court's instructions did not result in reversible error.

1. Evidence of other crimes is both probative and prejudicial. Other-crime evidence has a tendency to demonstrate a criminal preDisposition; therefore, it is prejudicial because it poses a distinct risk that it will distract a jury from an independent consideration of the evidence that bears directly on guilt itself. Because of the propensity for prejudice, the standards governing the admission of other-crime evidence seeks to assure that its probative worth is more than marginal and is not outweighed by its prejudicial effect. The admissibility and use of other-crime evidence is determined through the application of the New Jersey Rules of Evidence to assure that such evidence functions properly and fairly to guide the jury in its determination of criminal guilt. (pp. 10-11)

2. The Monmouth County evidence of sexual abuse was admissible as other-crime evidence under N.J.R.E. 404(b). When a trial court admits such evidence, the court must specifically instruct the jury about the limited relevance of that evidence. The court must not only caution against a consideration of that evidence for improper purposes, it must, through specific instruction, direct and focus the jury's attention on the permissible purposes for which the evidence is to be considered. Here, the trial court, in all three sets of instructions, failed to indicate the specific purposes for which the other crime evidence could be considered. (pp. 11-16)

3. Whether the failure to issue a limiting instruction resulted in prejudice to G.S. is addressed under the plain error rule, since G.S. did not object to the trial court's instruction on the grounds of lack of specificity. Plain error is reversible if it is clearly capable of producing an unjust result. The Appellate Division failed to engage in a sufficiently fact-oriented inquiry to sustain the Conclusion that the error was harmless. An examination of the record of the jury instructions reveals that the trial court's lack of specificity about the use of other-crime evidence did not create the real possibility that the jury reached the wrong result or significantly added to the likelihood that G.S. would be found guilty, thereby constituting an unjust result. In addition, there was strong evidence outside the other-crime evidence demonstrating G.S.'s guilt. In the context of the entire trial record, it does not appear that the failure of the trial court to adequately instruct the jury regarding the proper use of other-crime evidence was clearly capable of producing an unjust result. (pp. 16-21)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED.

JUSTICES POLLOCK, O'HERN, GARIBALDI, STEIN and COLEMAN join in JUSTICE HANDLER's opinion, CHIEF JUSTICE WILENTZ did not participate.

On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 278 N.J. Super. 151 (1994).

The opinion is the Court was delivered by

HANDLER, J.

In this case, the defendant was indicted and convicted for repeated acts of sexual molestation of his stepdaughter over a three-year period. Some of the evidence admitted at trial related to acts of sexual molestation that allegedly occurred over a period of time before the offenses charged in the indictment allegedly happened.

The trial court instructed the jury that such evidence may not be considered as demonstrating that defendant had a preDisposition to commit the offenses charged, but failed more specifically to explain to the jury the relevance of that evidence to any issue in dispute and, further, to so restrict its consideration of that evidence.

The jury convicted defendant of the offenses charged. In a reported decision, the Appellate Division reversed the convictions. 278 N.J. Super. 151 (1994). Because of a Dissent, the matter was appealed to this Court as of right. R. 2:2-1(a). Based on the Dissent, the sole question to be determined is whether the failure of the trial court to give a limiting instruction restricting the use of such other-crime evidence constituted reversible error.

I

In 1979, when L.K. was eight years old, her mother married defendant G.S. The family resided in Monmouth County. 278 N.J. Super. at 159. In 1982, at age eleven, L.K. attended a school assembly in which an instructor discussed "good touching and bad touching." Id. at 159-60. A few weeks later, L.K. received a poor school grade and was told by her mother that she would be punished with a spanking from defendant. L.K. informed her mother that she did not want defendant to spank her because she believed that he would spank her bare bottom in order to view her genitalia. L.K. further informed her mother that defendant had inappropriately touched her. Ibid. Also, L.K. told ...


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