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State v. Sanchez-Medina

Supreme Court of New Jersey

January 18, 2018

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
ALEXIS SANCHEZ-MEDINA, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued October 10, 2017

         On certification to the Superior Court, (077883) Appellate Division.

          Tamar Y. Lerer, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for appellant (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Tamar Y. Lerer, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Elizabeth R. Rebein, Assistant Bergen County Prosecutor, argued the cause for respondent (Gurbir S. Grewal, Bergen County Prosecutor, attorney; Gurbir S. Grewal, of counsel and on the brief).

          Ronald K. Chen argued the cause for amicus curiae American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (Edward L. Barocas, Legal Director, and the Rutgers University School of Law-Newark Constitutional Rights Clinic, attorneys; Ronald K. Chen, Edward L. Barocas, Jeanne M. LoCicero and Alexander R. Shalom, of counsel and on the brief).

         RABNER, C.J., writing for the Court.

         The Court considers whether defendant was denied his right to a fair trial on sexual assault charges. First, the prosecution asked defendant whether he had come to the United States legally. Over an objection, the jury learned that defendant had not. Second, although the allegations related to different incidents that involved four separate victims, the case rested heavily on an identification by a single witness. Despite that, neither party requested a jury charge on eyewitness identification, and the trial court did not instruct the jury on the subject.

         A jury convicted defendant Alexis Sanchez-Medina of various sexual-assault crimes that involved four separate victims: R.D., D.J., A.M., and A.B.

         (1) On July 27, 2012, in Englewood, a man on a bicycle approached R.D. from behind, tried to push her, and grabbed her buttocks. R.D. described her assailant as a Hispanic male with a ponytail. R.D. was the only witness to identify defendant. She selected his picture out of an array of six photographs. R.D. also identified defendant in court. (2) D.J. was inside her basement apartment in Englewood on August 9, 2012, at about 11:00 p.m., when she noticed the window air conditioner unit move. She went outside to investigate but did not see anyone. As D.J. walked back to her apartment, someone pinned her down. The attacker reached down her pants and inside her underwear, then got up and ran away. D.J. admitted that she did not get a good look at the attacker. She described him as a light-skinned African American or Hispanic male who wore his curly black hair in a ponytail. (3) At about 10:00 p.m. on August 10, 2012, A.M. was walking in Dumont. She saw a "shadow of a guy" approach her from behind. The man grabbed both of her arms from behind and gripped them tightly. He eventually released her and ran away. A.M. did not see her attacker's face. She said he appeared to be about 5'3" to 5'7" in height, had a medium build, and had short dark hair. She noted that he wore a sweatshirt and cargo pants. (4) About twenty minutes after the prior incident, A.B. was assaulted in Dumont. A man charged at A.B. from behind, forced her to the ground, and put his fingers up her shorts and inside her vagina. A.B. screamed and tried to push the attacker off of her, and he ran away. A.B. never saw the man's face. As he ran, she saw the back of his head and his silhouette. She did not describe him other than to note that he wore dark shorts and a dark shirt.

         As part of an investigation into the attacks, the police detained defendant, who repeatedly denied any involvement in the attacks. He also made certain admissions.

         All four victims testified at trial and relayed the above details. Defendant testified as well. He denied that he had ever seen any of the victims or done anything to them. His defense was misidentification.

         The prosecution began its cross-examination of defendant with this question: "You're from Honduras, right?" After defendant said "yes, " the prosecution asked, "And you didn't come into the United States legally?" Defense counsel objected, and the trial judge overruled the objection. Defendant then confirmed that he had not "come into this country legally." The judge gave conflicting limiting instructions about that evidence. In addition, although R.D. 's identification of defendant was central to the case, neither party asked the judge to instruct the jury on how to evaluate the evidence. The court did not instruct the jury specifically on that point on its own.

         On appeal, the State acknowledged that the prosecution should not have elicited testimony about defendant's immigration status. The panel found that defendant was not prejudiced by the testimony in light of the trial court's limiting instructions. The Appellate Division also found that the trial court should have charged the jury on identification. The panel, though, concluded that the omission did not constitute plain error in light of the strong evidence that corroborated R.D.'s identification, specifically, defendant's statement.

         The Court granted defendant's petition for certification limited to the following issues: the admissibility of defendant's immigration status for impeachment purposes; and the trial court's failure to instruct the jury on identification. 228 N.J. 57 (2016).

         HELD: The cumulative effect of both errors denied defendant his right to a fair trial.

         1. The State rightly concedes that it was improper to question defendant about his immigration status. As a general rule, that type of evidence should not be presented to a jury. To be admissible at trial, evidence must be relevant. N.J.R.E. 401. Whether a defendant entered the country legally tells a jury nothing about whether he committed an act of sexual assault. Even if relevant, "evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the risk of. . . undue prejudice, confusion of issues, or misleading the jury." N.J.R.E. 403. Both today and in late 2013 when this trial took place, evidence of a defendant's undocumented immigration status could appeal to prejudice, inflame certain jurors, and distract them from their proper role in the justice system: to evaluate relevant evidence fairly and objectively. A defendant's immigration status is not proof of character or reputation that can be admitted under Rules 404 or 608. Proof of status alone is also not evidence of a prior criminal conviction. See N.J.R.E. 609. Nor is a person's immigration status admissible as a prior bad act under Rule 404(b). (pp. 13-17)

         2. In this case, the error was significant. The prosecution's first questions on cross-examination focused on defendant's status and set the tone for what followed. To compound the error, the trial court issued conflicting instructions about whether jurors could consider the evidence to determine whether defendant "follows the rules of society." Without a clear instruction to disregard the evidence entirely, we cannot be certain whether and how the jury might have relied upon it during deliberations, (pp. 17-18)

         3. The State also appropriately recognizes that the failure to instruct the jury on identification evidence was an error. R.D. 's identification of defendant was central to this case. She was the sole witness to identify defendant, and his defense at trial was misidentification. When eyewitness identification is a "key issue, " the trial court must instruct the jury how to assess the evidence-even if defendant does not request the charge. State v. Cotto, 182 N.J. 316, 325 (2005). The jury in this case should have been instructed about some of the factors discussed in State v. Henderson, 208 N.J. 208 (2011). At a charge conference, the parties and the court should have considered whether charges on memory decay, confidence, stress, duration, lighting, and other factors were warranted. To be sure, the judge should have given the charge on his own because R.D.'s identification was a "key issue." But counsel for the State and the defense are very much a part of the trial process as well. It is imperative that both sides carefully evaluate and propose relevant jury instructions before and during trial, rather than after a verdict, (pp. 18-21)

         4. Defendant's convictions rest largely on the testimony of four victims, only one of whom could identify him. No forensic evidence linked defendant to the crimes charged, and no other witnesses observed or could corroborate any of the incidents. The witnesses' descriptions of their assailants varied. In addition, although the assaults shared some similarities, they differed from one another in key ways. The assaults were not "signature" crimes that, on their own, suggest the same person carried out each attack. Defendant's statement to the police, which he recanted at trial, offers some corroboration Yet he also denied the core of the accusations during the interview. Looking at all of the proofs together, the evidence against defendant was not overwhelming, as the State suggests, (pp. 21-23)

         5. Even if an individual error does not require reversal, the cumulative effect of a series of errors can cast doubt on a verdict and call for a new trial. Here, the jury received no guidance about how to assess the single identification of defendant-a critical issue at trial that defendant disputed. And the jurors were not told to ignore provocative evidence about defendant's immigration status. Together, those errors undermined defendant's right to a fair trial. They raise serious questions about whether the outcome was just, particularly in light of the strength of the evidence presented. See R 2:10-2. The Court therefore has no choice other than to vacate defendant's convictions, (p. 23)

         Defendant's convictions are VACATED, and the matter is REMANDED to the Law Division for a new trial consistent with this opinion.

          JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, SOLOMON, and TIMPONE join in CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER's opinion.

          OPINION

          RABNER, CHIEF JUSTICE

         This criminal case involves charges of sexual assault. Defendant testified on his own behalf at trial and denied the allegations. At the start of his cross-examination, the prosecution asked whether he had come to the United States legally. Over an objection, the jury learned that defendant had not. That highly charged evidence was irrelevant and should not have been admitted, as the State now concedes.

         Only in a rare case will it be appropriate for a prosecutor to elicit testimony about a defendant's immigration status. In most instances, that type of evidence has no bearing on the crimes charged or a witness's credibility. It can also substantially prejudice the accused because of the inflammatory nature of the issue.

         This appeal presents a second issue as well. Although the allegations related to different incidents that involved four separate victims, the case rested heavily on an identification by a single witness. No other victim could identify her assailant. Despite that, neither party requested a jury charge on eyewitness identification, and the trial court did not instruct the jury on the subject. In light of the overall strength of the proofs presented, that error was significant.

         The cumulative effect of both errors denied defendant his right to a fair trial. We are therefore required to vacate defendant's convictions and remand for a new trial.

         I.

         A jury convicted defendant Alexis Sanchez-Medina of various sexual-assault crimes that involved four separate victims: R.D., D.J., A.M., and A.B. We refer to the victims by their initials to protect their identity. To recount the distinct criminal episodes, we rely on the victims' testimony at trial.

         A.

         On July 27, 2012, at around 8:30 p.m., R.D. was walking with her three-year-old son in Englewood. A man on a bicycle approached R.D. from behind, tried to push her, and grabbed her buttocks. He then rode up and down the street for several blocks, threw kisses at her, and again tried to push her. He also made comments in Spanish that R.D. did not follow.

         R.D. was headed to her boyfriend's house and, as she approached it, the man shoved her onto the lawn and kept moving on his bicycle. R.D. later noticed that a pink dress she had been carrying in a bag was missing. Days after, she saw the dress on a pole where she had last seen her assailant.

         R.D. contacted the police almost three weeks later after she watched a news report "about a rapist" in the area. The next day, she met with detectives from the Englewood Police Department and gave a statement. She described her assailant as a Hispanic male with a ponytail. She said he wore a royal blue hat and t-shirt, short blue jeans, and sneakers at the time of the attack.

         R.D. was the only witness to identify defendant. She selected his picture out of an array of six photographs. At first, she told a detective that she was 75 percent certain that the person in the photo had attacked her. Soon after, she said ...


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