On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
The opinion of the Court was delivered by Pollock, J. Justices Handler, O'hern, Garibaldi, Stein and Coleman join in Justice POLLOCK's opinion.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pollock
(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. Domingo R. Medina (A-24-95)
State v. Edward F. Farmer (A-25-95)
Argued October 24, 1995 -- Decided December 5, 1996
Pollock, J., writing for a unanimous Court.
The issue in these two appeals is whether the jury instructions in these cases satisfied the requirements of due process in explaining that the State bears the burden of proving defendants' guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Defendant Medina was tried and convicted of second-degree aggravated assault, fourth-degree aggravated assault, second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose and third-degree terroristic threats. During the jury charge, the trial court explained the State's burden of proof, which included an attempted definition of a "reasonable doubt." During its instructions, the trial court charged the jury that the presumption of innocence "does not fade or extinguish until 12 of you agree that [the defendant] is guilty of something;" that "a reasonable doubt [is] doubt from which a reason can be given;" that "a doubt which ignores a reasonable interpretation of the evidence...is not a reasonable doubt" and that "you do not search for doubt, you search for the truth."
Medina did not object to the jury instructions. However, before the Appellate Division, he claimed that the jury charges violated his right to due process and a fair trial under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and Article I of the New Jersey Constitution. The Appellate Division affirmed Medina's conviction. The Supreme Court granted certification.
Defendant Farmer was tried and convicted of murder, possession of a firearm for an unlawful purpose, possession of a shotgun without a permit and hindering apprehension or prosecution. During the jury charge, the trial court explained the State's burden of proof, which included an attempted definition of a "reasonable doubt" that was substantially identical to that given by the trial court in the Medina matter.
Farmer's counsel objected to these instructions, arguing that the charge should include an instruction that circumstantial evidence could also support a verdict of not guilty and that the State's burden of proof extended beyond the elements of the crime to the underlying facts. Farmer's counsel further contended that the instruction defined "reasonable doubt" in terms of what it was not and gave little guidance about what the term meant. The trial court believed that its instruction was adequate, but gave a supplemental instruction, which essentially informed the jury that it should apply the same standards to its evaluation of both direct and circumstantial evidence. Farmer appealed his conviction, which the Appellate Division affirmed. The Supreme Court granted Farmer's petition for certification.
HELD: Although portions of the trial courts' instructions that attempted to define the term "reasonable doubt" constituted error, the charge did not so infect the instruction as to lower the State's burden of proof or to violate due process. Trial courts are directed, however, not to repeat the offending clauses in the future and to adopt the definition of reasonable doubt set forth in this opinion.
1. Both the United States Constitution and the New Jersey Constitution require that the trial court inform the jury of the State's burden to prove a defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A jury instruction that fails to communicate that burden is not amenable to harmless-error analysis and requires reversal. (pp.5-6)
2. Although trial courts have struggled to explain the State's burden of proof, the Court has cautioned against using any charge that has a tendency to understate or trivialize the awesome duty of the jury to determine whether the defendant's guilt was proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Those instructions that overall lessen the State's burden of proof violate due process. (pp. 6-8)
3. A jury need not find an articulable reason to support its doubts about the State's case, as was suggested by the trial court's instruction that a reasonable doubt means doubt for which a reason can be given. However, because the trial court provided an alternative definition of reasonable doubt that more accurately describes the State's burden, the offending language was unlikely to have lessened the State's burden of proof in the eyes of the jury. (pp. 8-10)
4. A jury need not convict just because the State presents a "reasonable interpretation of the evidence" and may accept or reject such a proffer. However, reviewing the charge as a whole, the challenged comment did not impermissibly diminish the State's burden of proof. (pp. 10-11)
5. Although telling jurors not to "search for doubt" improperly eases the State's burden, the charge neither constituted plain error nor confused the jury about the nature of the State's burden of proof. (pp. 11-12)
6. Although the trial court's instruction erroneously suggested that the defendant lost the benefit of the presumption of innocence upon a finding that he was "guilty of something," read as a whole, the instruction made clear that the jury was to hold the State to its burden of proof for each offense. (pp. 12-13)
7. To avoid problems in the future, when explaining reasonable doubt, trial courts are instructed to charge the jury that "the prosecution must prove its case by more than a mere preponderance of the evidence, yet not necessarily to an absolute certainty" and to give only the definition of reasonable doubt set forth in this opinion. Failure to adhere to the definition set forth in this opinion, over an objection, will run the risk of reversible error. (p. 20-21)
Judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.
JUSTICES HANDLER, O'HERN, GARIBALDI, STEIN and COLEMAN join in JUSTICE POLLOCK's opinion.
The opinion of the Court was delivered by
The issue is whether the jury instructions in these cases satisfied the requirements of due process in explaining that the State bears the burden of proving defendants' guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. After consolidating the cases, the Appellate Division affirmed the convictions of both defendants. We affirm both judgments.
On the night of June 14, 1990, Jose Torres and Michael Babilonia drove to a Camden apartment building where their friend Jimmy Rivera lived. When Babilonia beeped the car horn, Rivera's girlfriend, Melissa, came to the window and said that Rivera was sleeping. Babilonia continued to beep the car horn and cursed at Melissa.
Defendant, Domingo Medina, who had been in the building, confronted Babilonia and Torres. Medina accused Torres of "being with" Medina's girlfriend, Anna, and of calling Medina a "pussy." Torres denied Medina's allegations.
Medina then pulled a handgun from the front pocket of his sweatshirt and pulled back the slide. Nervous, Torres began retreating. Medina threatened to shoot Torres if he continued walking. Torres continued. Medina followed him for half a block. Medina repeated his threat, but Torres continued to retreat. Medina fired five shots at Torres. Three of the bullets struck Torres, one in the lower back and two in the right buttock. The gunshots caused severe injury to Torres' diaphragm, liver, bladder, and sigmoid colon. At the hospital, Torres told a hospital worker that Medina had shot him.
Police questioned Medina about the shooting. After they advised him of his Miranda rights, Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694 (1966), Medina admitted that he had pointed a gun at Torres, that the gun was loaded, that he had cocked the gun, and that he had followed Torres up the street. He stated, however, that he had not intended to shoot Torres but that the handgun had discharged accidentally five times.
A Camden County grand jury returned a six-count indictment against Medina, charging him with: second-degree aggravated assault, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(1) (count one); fourth-degree aggravated assault, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(4) (count two); third-degree unlawful possession of a handgun, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5b (count three); second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4a (count four); third-degree terroristic ...