On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
(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).
In this appeal from a murder conviction, defendant claims that the trial court's defective limiting instructions on other-crimes evidence when combined with inappropriate, emotionally-charged remarks by the assistant prosecutor in summation denied her a fair trial. The sole issue before us arises from the dissent of Judge Weissbard who would have reversed defendant's murder conviction.
On September 14, 1999, S.B., a six-month old infant, was brought to Jersey City Medical Center for symptoms related to shaken-baby syndrome. S.B. died four days later. At trial, the State presented evidence of other serious but not life-threatening injuries suffered by S.B. at the hands of his nineteen-year old mother, Breane Starr Blakney. The jury convicted Blakney of murder, second-degree aggravated assault, fourth-degree child abuse, and second-degree endangering the welfare of a child. Blakney was sentenced to several concurrent terms of imprisonment, including thirty years without parole eligibility on the murder charge.
The Appellate Division affirmed and remanded for resentencing on a merger issue. Judge Weissbard dissented, taking the position that the trial court's inadequate limiting instructions on other-crime evidence, when combined with the prosecutor's inappropriate and inflammatory remarks in summation, had the clear capacity to undermine confidence in the integrity of the murder conviction and therefore cause an unjust result.
HELD: We agree with Judge Weissbard substantially for the reasons expressed in his dissenting opinion. We therefore reverse defendant's murder conviction and remand for a new trial on that charge. In addition, we underscore the importance of well-crafted limiting instructions when the State introduces other-crime evidence pursuant to N.J.R.E. 404(b), and remind prosecutors of their obligation to keep their summation remarks within acceptable bounds of advocacy.
1. When dealing with other-crimes evidence, a court must precisely instruct the jury that the proper use of such evidence is to prove a relevant issue in dispute and not to impugn the character of the defendant. Such instructions should be given not only at the time that other-crimes evidence is presented, but also in the final jury charge. On the whole, the other-crimes limiting instructions in this case failed the test required by our jurisprudence and were susceptible to misleading the jury in a closely-poised case in which the jury could easily have concluded that defendant was guilty of aggravated manslaughter as opposed to murder. (Pp. 4-8)
2. The assistant prosecutor's highly emotional and personalized remarks in summation crossed the bounds of propriety and compounded the prejudice flowing from the inadequate other-crimes limiting instructions. The assistant prosecutor's duty is to prove the State's case based on the evidence and not to play on the passions of the jury or trigger emotional flashpoints, deflecting attention from the hard facts on which the State's case must rise or fall. (Pp. 8-10)
3. The inadequate jury instructions combined with the prosecutorial excesses in summation, when cast against the less than overwhelming evidence supporting a murder conviction, cannot be viewed as harmless. (Pp. 10-12)
The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED for a new trial on the charge of murder.
CHIEF JUSTICE ZAZZALI and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, WALLACE, RIVERA-SOTO, and HOENS join in JUSTICE ALBIN's opinion.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Albin
In this appeal from a murder conviction, defendant claims that the trial court's defective limiting instructions on other-crimes evidence when combined with inappropriate, emotionally-charged remarks by the assistant prosecutor in summation denied her a fair trial. ...