The opinion of the court was delivered by: Verniero, J.
Argued September 12, 2000
On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
Defendants were tried and convicted on murder and other charges stemming from a gang-related multiple homicide in Teaneck, New Jersey. At the trial that spanned several months, the County Sheriff implemented a plan of heightened security consisting of an increased presence of uniformed officers in the courtroom as well as other measures. We must determine whether the elevated security deprived defendants of their right to a fair trial by creating an unacceptable atmosphere suggestive of guilt. The Appellate Division concluded that defendants were not denied a fair trial. We agree and, therefore, affirm.
Defendants are members of a Chinese gang known as Fuk Ching. The gang's activities included extortion, arson, and loan sharking. At the time of the murders the gang derived profits from smuggling illegal Chinese aliens into the United States. The immigrants purportedly paid between $20,000 and $30,000 for transportation and were required to pay back approximately $1,000 a month to the gang. Many, if not most, of the immigrants took low-paying jobs and were forced to live as cheaply as possible, often in gang-run "safe houses." If the immigrants did not repay the debt, they were held captive and sometimes beaten. Some aliens became involved in the gang's criminal activities.
In furtherance of the gang's operations, a ship carrying hundreds of illegal Chinese immigrants was due to arrive off the coast of Massachusetts in 1993. Rival members within the Fuk Ching gang decided that they would kill the gang's leader and other high-ranking members and thereby take control of those expected immigrants. On May 24, 1993, the rivals attempted to carry out their plan by attacking a safe house in Teaneck, New Jersey. There were four gang members and one smuggled alien living in the house, and defendants shot or stabbed all of the occupants (one occupant was actually shot outdoors as he attempted to escape harm). Four of the victims of the attack died; one victim, the alien, survived.
Having received descriptions of the getaway van seen by witnesses, the police arrested all defendants (except defendant Lau) a short time after the shooting at a roadblock near the George Washington Bridge. The police retrieved numerous weapons from defendants and the safe house, including guns, knives, handcuffs, a container of gasoline, and ammunition. The police also found blood-stained clothing in the van. Defendant Lau, who had fled the murder scene in a separate vehicle, was arrested sometime later in Florida and extradited to New Jersey. Defendants were indicted on numerous counts of murder, attempted murder, felony murder, kidnapping, burglary, attempted arson, and various weapons offenses.
Against the background of the indictment and the gang's alleged internecine rivalries, the Bergen County Sheriff's Office proposed certain high-security procedures to be implemented at trial. Frank Benedetto, a captain with that office, outlined the procedures in a May 8, 1995, memorandum to the Sheriff. The memorandum states in full:
The Bergen County Sheriff's Department's standard operating procedure for high security trials will be implemented in reference to the State of New Jersey vs. [Jeffrey Zhu, et al.] trial.
A supervising officer will be assigned to oversee the security detail. An appropriate amount of officers will be assigned to address all participants, the judge, the jury, defendants, defense attorneys, the prosecutor and the general public.
Please be advised that five defendants are presently incarcerated in the Bergen County Jail and one is incarcerated in the Hudson County Jail.
The said defendants will be transported on a daily basis by members of the Transportation Unit. Once inside the Justice Complex they will be escorted from holding areas through the corridors utilizing handcuffs and leg irons. All corridors will be cleared prior to the movement and all jurors will be secured in the jury room prior to any movement. Special precautions will be taken to assure that no juror will see the said defendants in escort. Once inside the courtroom, handcuffs and leg irons will be removed.
The courtroom in question will be searched on a daily basis prior to its opening, [and] it will be closed and locked during lunch. All participants, including the general public will have to pass through mangetometer-type [sic] searches. All packages and briefcases will have to be opened for examination.
No police officer and or members of the Prosecutor's office will be permitted to carry firearms into the courtroom in question. The Sheriff's officers assigned to the handling of the defendants will also be unarmed.
Also be advised that all Sheriff's personnel will be briefed on a daily basis prior to their assignments by the supervising officer as to their responsibilities and duties. At the close of each day, the supervising officer will conduct an additional meeting critiquing that days [sic] activities.
On May 22, 1995, the trial court conducted a hearing during which defense counsel questioned Captain Benedetto regarding the proposed plan. As reflected in the transcript of that proceeding, Captain Benedetto explained that in addition to passing through metal detectors located at the main entrances to the courthouse, all individuals entering the courtroom would be cleared each day by security personnel employing magnetometers (handheld metal detectors that resemble wands). Specifically, a Sheriff's officer would wave the magnetometer close to the individual before that individual entered the courtroom. Captain Benedetto estimated that the procedure would take only a few seconds. Additionally, Sheriff's officers positioned outside the courtroom would visually inspect any handbags, packages, or briefcases ...