(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).
The Court granted defendant's motion to clarify its opinion in State v. Jimenez, 188 N.J. 390 (2006) (Jimenez II), which adopted the framework for adjudicating whether a defendant is mentally retarded and therefore not subject to the death penalty under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 122 S. Ct. 2242, 153 L. Ed. 2d 335 (2002).
On June 7, 2001, Porfirio Jimenez was arrested for the murder and sexual assault of ten-year-old W.C. The State gave notice of its intent to seek the death penalty, which prompted Jimenez to file a pretrial motion claiming his mental retardation precluded such punishment. In Atkins, supra, the United States Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of a mentally retarded defendant. However, the Court left it to the states to adopt procedures for determining whether a defendant is mentally retarded.
This Court established the procedure for determining whether a capital defendant is mentally retarded, and therefore not eligible for the death penalty, in Jimenez II, supra. The Court held that the defendant has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence at the close of the guilt-phase trial and before the penalty-phase begins that he or she is mentally retarded. Where the jury determines that a statutory capital trigger exists beyond a reasonable doubt, then the defendant has the opportunity to demonstrate to the jury that he or she is mentally retarded. If the defendant meets this burden, he or she will be sentenced to a term of imprisonment. If the defendant does not meet this burden, a penalty phase trial will be held.
Jimenez contends that a non-unanimous jury verdict is the appropriate procedure to determine whether he is mentally retarded. Consequently, he argues that if one juror finds that he met his burden to show by a preponderance of the evidence that he is mentally retarded, a non-death sentence is required. The State argues that a unanimous finding of mental retardation is required before the imposition of the death penalty is barred.
HELD: In a capital cause prosecution, if a single juror finds that the defendant has proved his or her mental retardation by a preponderance of the evidence, the defendant is not eligible to receive the death penalty.
1. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that mitigating factors need not be found unanimously because that would preclude deadlocked jurors from giving legal effect to those factors in determining whether a defendant was death eligible. This Court has reached a similar result under state law. The legal effect of a finding of mental retardation is like a conclusive mitigating factor that precludes the imposition of the death penalty. The Court concludes that because mental retardation is a conclusive mitigating factor, and because mitigating factors do not have to be found unanimously, a unanimous jury finding of mental retardation is not required to preclude a death sentence. (pp. 4-6)
2. As a result of the decision that a unanimous verdict is not required for a defendant to establish that he or she is mentally retarded, the Court finds no justification to require a separate proceeding at the close of the guilt-phase and before the penalty-phase portion of the trial. Rather, the appropriate procedure is to give a defendant the opportunity to demonstrate to the jury in the penalty phase, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he or she is mentally retarded. If a single juror is satisfied that a defendant has met his or her burden, the defendant will be sentenced to a term of imprisonment. (pp. 6-7)
The matter is REMANDED to the trial court for proceedings consistent with this opinion.
JUSTICE ALBIN, joined by JUSTICE LONG, has filed a separate DISSENTING opinion, expressing the view that he continues to adhere to his dissent in Jimenez II, where he concluded that the burden should be on the State to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant is not retarded and therefore eligible for the death penalty.
CHIEF JUSTICE ZAZZALI and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, WALLACE, and RIVERA-SOTO join in this opinion. JUSTICE ALBIN has filed a separate, dissenting opinion, in which JUSTICE LONG joins. JUSTICE HOENS did not participate.
On motion for clarification of the opinion of the Supreme Court, whose opinion is reported ...