On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
The opinion of the Court was delivered by Coleman, J. Chief Justice Poritz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'hern, Garibaldi and Stein join in Justice COLEMAN's opinion.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Coleman
(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. Lyle Nance (A-67-96)
Argued January 7, 1997 -- Decided March 20, 1997
COLEMAN, J., writing for a unanimous Court.
The issue in this appeal is whether it was error to admit evidence of defendant's other crimes, wrongs, or acts against a third party in a trial for purposeful or knowing murder to prove that the homicide was neither accidental nor in self-defense.
Lyle Nance was tried for the purposeful or knowing murder of Michael Snow, second-degree burglary of the apartment of Donnelle Williams, felony murder, two counts of endangering the welfare of children, and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose. During the trial, Nance admitted shooting Michael Snow but testified that the shooting was accidental and in self-defense. The State's theory was that Nance had shot Snow intentionally in a jealous rage related to Donnelle Williams. In support of its theory, the State offered the testimony of Donnelle Williams regarding Nance's conduct toward her to establish his jealousy. The trial court ruled that some bad-conduct evidence was admissible, but ruled that such evidence should not include any act of violence by Nance against Williams.
At trial, the Judge specifically charged the jury that it could not consider the bad-conduct evidence to conclude that Nance had a general propensity to commit the crimes with which he was charged. The jury acquitted defendant of purposeful or knowing murder, but convicted him on the remaining charges.
The Appellate Division reversed the convictions, holding that it was reversible error to admit the bad-conduct evidence because it was fundamentally irrelevant to the issues the jury had to decide.
The Supreme Court granted the State's petition for certification.
HELD: The trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting the other-conduct evidence because it was not too prejudicial to defendant; the limiting instruction given by the trial court regarding the jury's use of the other-conduct evidence was sufficient.
1. Courts should exclude evidence of other crimes, civil wrongs, or acts when such evidence is offered solely to establish the forbidden inference of propensity or preDisposition. However, even when the evidence is probative of a material disputed fact in the case, the risk of prejudice may outweigh the probative worth of the evidence. (pp. 9-11).
2. In determining when other-crime evidence is admissible, a four-part test designed to avoid the misuse of that evidence should be applied. That same test should be applied to the admission of other-conduct evidence. (p. 12)
3. Determinations on the admissibility of other-crime evidence are to be left to the discretion of the trial court and its decisions are entitled to deference and are to be reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard. (p. 13)
4. Nance's state of mind was a relevant issue, and the motive of jealousy was a proper basis upon which the jury could conclude that Nance did or did not intend to shoot Snow. (pp. 13-14)
5. Evidence of other conduct toward a third person, who is not the victim of the crime, is admissible to show motive or intent. (pp. 14-15)
6. The admission of other-conduct evidence should not be reversed unless the danger of undue prejudice outweighs probative value so as to divert jurors from a reasonable and fair evaluation of the basic issue of guilt or innocence. (p. 16)
7. When a trial court admits evidence of other conduct to show the defendant's motive, intent, or absence of accident, the court must instruct the jury on the limited use of the evidence, which instruction should be formulated carefully to explain precisely the permitted and prohibited purposes of the evidence. (pp. 17-19)
Judgment of the Appellate Division vacating the convictions and ordering a new trial is REVERSED. The matter is REMANDED to the Appellate Division for consideration of the prosecutorial misconduct and sentencing issues.
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES HANDLER, POLLOCK, O'HERN, GARIBALDI and STEIN join in JUSTICE COLEMAN's opinion.
The opinion of the Court was delivered by
The issue in this appeal is whether it was error to admit evidence of defendant's "other crimes, wrongs, or acts" against a third party in a purposeful or knowing murder trial to prove that the homicide was neither accidental nor in self-defense. The Appellate Division in an unpublished opinion concluded that it was reversible error to admit that evidence. We granted the State's petition for certification, 145 N.J. 373, 678 A.2d 714 (1996), and now reverse.