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State v. Santamaria

Supreme Court of New Jersey

January 16, 2019

State of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Appellant/Cross-Respondent,
v.
Guillermo Santamaria, a/k/a William Santamaria, Ghilermo Santamaria, Defendant-Respondent/Cross-Appellant.

          Argued September 27, 2018

          On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

          Nancy A. Hulett, Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for appellant/cross-respondent (Andrew C. Carey, Middlesex County Prosecutor, attorney; Nancy A. Hulett, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Frank J. Pugliese, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for respondent/cross-appellant (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Frank J. Pugliese, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Evgeniya Sitnikova, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for amicus curiae Attorney General of New Jersey (Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney; Arielle E. Katz, Deputy Attorney General, of counsel and on the brief).

          TIMPONE, J., writing for the Court.

         Former middle school teacher Guillermo Santamaria was tried and convicted of aggravated sexual assault and official misconduct for his sexual relationship with a student at his school from the time she was fourteen. The Court considers whether the trial court's admission of sixty-five photographs -- approximately fourteen of which were sexually graphic -- amounted to plain error. The Court also examines whether the State committed reversible error by commenting, during summation, on defendant's silence when the victim, H.B., accused him of having sexual relations with her while she was a minor on multiple occasions over many years.

         In 1997, thirteen-year-old H.B. met forty-three-year-old defendant at McGinnis Middle School in Perth Amboy, where he was a science teacher. In the spring of 1998, defendant encouraged H.B. to enroll in one of his courses. When she graduated from middle school in 1998, their communications continued, becoming more intimate. Shortly after her fourteenth birthday, H.B. met the defendant in a park, where he engaged in vaginal intercourse with her. The pattern continued as H.B. entered high school, and then college.

         In 2010, H.B. contacted a detective at the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office with information about defendant. The detective obtained authorization to record conversations between defendant and H.B. With the detective's help, H.B. scheduled a dinner with the defendant and wore a recording device to capture their conversation. She questioned him about why he started the relationship with her and asked, "How could you rape a fourteen-year-old?" Defendant made no admissions or denials. Defendant's ex-wife turned over a CD of approximately sixty-five photos that she had found in her yard in 2002. The CD's contents ranged from hardcore photos of sexual acts between defendant and H.B. to suggestive pictures of H.B. in various states of undress. A grand jury indicted defendant on one count of first-degree aggravated sexual assault, two counts of second-degree sexual assault, and two counts of official misconduct.

         Before trial, the prosecution, defense counsel, and the court collaborated on a questionnaire for potential jurors, which included a question about the photographs. The judge then asked if there were any objections. Neither party objected, and both sides agreed that the photos were taken after H.B. turned eighteen. At trial, defense counsel urged the jury to view the photos as exhibiting the actions of two consenting adults. He attempted to undercut H.B.'s testimony, saying defendant had been "ambushed about a past that never happened." The State argued that it is not credible that H.B. would have consented to pose for such a broad array of photos in so new of a relationship. Instead, according to the State, the photos were evidence of a long sexual relationship that predated her eighteenth birthday. During summation before the jury, the prosecutor highlighted H.B.'s accusation that defendant had raped her when she was fourteen, noting that defendant did not respond to the accusation.

         Defendant appealed, challenging the admission of the photographs and the prosecutor's references to his silence during summation. After reversing as to one count of official misconduct that it found beyond the statute of limitations, the Appellate Division reversed defendant's remaining convictions and remanded for a new trial. The panel found that the court should have excluded the photos as cumulative and unduly prejudicial under N.J.R.E. 403, and as other-crime evidence or bad acts under N.J.R.E. 404(b). The panel also offered guidance for retrial, demonstrating support for defendant's argument that the State improperly commented on his silence during the recorded conversation with H.B. The State moved for reconsideration, which was denied. The State filed a petition for certification, which the Court granted. 232 N.J. 153 (2018). Defendant cross-petitioned, which the Court granted, limited to whether it was plain error for the trial court to allow the State to introduce the photographs and whether the State committed reversible error by commenting on defendant's silence. 233 N.J. 295 (2018).

         HELD: The trial court did not err in the admission of the photographs, nor did the State commit reversible error when it commented on the defendant's silence.

         1. A defendant who does not raise an issue before a trial court bears the burden of establishing that the trial court's actions constituted plain error. Here, the admission of the photographs was raised for the first time on appeal by defendant. Therefore, the Court reverses only if any error was "clearly capable of producing an unjust result." R. 2:10-2. The same standard applies to review of the prosecutor's remarks during summation, to which defense counsel did not object. (p. 14)

         2. N.J.R.E. 401 defines "relevant evidence" as evidence having a tendency in reason to prove or disprove any fact of consequence to the determination of the action. Under N.J.R.E. 402, "all relevant evidence is admissible" subject to exceptions provided for elsewhere in the rules. The parties agree that the photographs were taken after H.B. turned eighteen. The number of photographs -- as well as the graphic nature of the sexual acts depicted weeks after H.B. turned eighteen -- is relevant to establishing a pre-existing relationship between defendant and H.B. The photos are therefore intrinsic to the prosecution's case. Defendant argues that the photographs are not relevant because his relationship with H.B. was legal, but H.B. testified, without any objection, that her relationship with defendant began well before her eighteenth birthday and continued afterward. Defendant concedes H.B.'s testimony about events occurring after her eighteenth birthday was relevant. The Court finds no compelling reason why the same logic would not apply to the photographs. (pp. 15-16)

         3. Relevant evidence may "be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the risk of (a) undue prejudice, confusion of issues, or misleading the jury or (b) . . . needless presentation of cumulative evidence." N.J.R.E. 403. Evidence should be barred under N.J.R.E. 403 if the probative value of the evidence is so significantly outweighed by its inherently inflammatory potential as to have a probable capacity to divert the minds of the jurors from a reasonable and fair evaluation of the issues. The party urging the exclusion of evidence under N.J.R.E. 403 must convince the court that the N.J.R.E. 403 considerations should control. Here, the nature and number of photographs have the capacity to demonstrate the depth and length of the relationship, and the photos were admissible under N.J.R.E. 403 because their probative value outweighed any prejudicial effect. Moreover, defendant did not object to any of the photographs and, on cross-examination, briefly questioned H.B. further about the photographs. Importantly, defendant did not merely fail to object to the photographs but instead strategically relied on the photographs as part of his defense. Although it was not error to admit the photos, even if it were error, a party may not strategically withhold its objection to risky or unsavory evidence at trial only to raise the issue on appeal when the tactic does not pan out. The Appellate Division erred by finding plain error in the admission of the photographs under N.J.R.E. 403. (pp. 16-21)

         4. N.J.R.E. 404(b) provides that "evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the disposition of a person in order to show that such person acted in conformity therewith." Significantly, however, evidence that is intrinsic to the charged crime is exempt from the strictures of Rule 404(b) -- it does not constitute other-acts evidence and is subject only to the limits of Rule 403. Here, the State used the photos to demonstrate that the consensual relationship admitted to by both parties logically must have preceded H.B.'s majority. The photographs were intrinsic, not evidence of "other crimes, wrongs, or acts," so the Appellate Division was incorrect to find they should have been excluded. (pp. 21-23)

         5. The Fifth Amendment provides that "[n]o person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." The privilege against self-incrimination is present in New Jersey common law and statutory law. The practical effect of the privilege to remain silent is that when a defendant expressly refuses to answer, no inference can be drawn against him. Importantly, pre-arrest silence that is not at or near the time of arrest, when there is no government compulsion and the objective circumstances demonstrate that a reasonable person in a defendant's position would have acted differently, can be used to impeach that defendant's credibility. Here, H.B. spoke with defendant as a private citizen, and defendant was unaware of any police presence. The use of a recording device to allow law enforcement to listen in on a conversation does not show government compulsion. The State's comments on defendant's silence were appropriate and did not infringe on his right to remain silent or privilege against self-incrimination. The Appellate Division's guidance on the prosecutor's comments on silence should not be adopted. (pp. 24-26)

         REVERSED and REMANDED to the Appellate Division.

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

          OPINION

          TIMPONE JUSTICE.

         Former middle school teacher Guillermo Santamaria was tried and convicted of aggravated sexual assault and official misconduct for his sexual relationship with a student at his school from the time she was fourteen. In this appeal we consider whether the trial court's admission of some sixty-five photographs -- approximately fourteen of which were sexually graphic --amounted to plain error. Additionally, we examine whether the State committed reversible error in its summation by commenting on defendant's silence when the victim, H.B., accused him of having had sexual relations with her while she was a minor on multiple occasions over many years.

         The Appellate Division reversed defendant's convictions and remanded the matter for a new trial. The panel found that, although defendant did not object to the admission of the photographs, the trial court should have excluded them sua sponte as cumulative and unduly prejudicial under N.J.R.E. 403 and as other-crime evidence or bad acts under N.J.R.E. 404(b). The panel also offered guidance for retrial, demonstrating support for defendant's argument that the State improperly commented on his silence during a recorded conversation with H.B.

         We now reverse the Appellate Division's judgment ordering a new trial. We find neither error in the admission of the photographs under N.J.R.E. 403 nor reversible error concerning the prosecutor's closing comments regarding the defendant's silence when H.B. made her recorded accusations. We nevertheless remind trial courts to be attentive to their gatekeeping function as they curate the admission of evidence.

         I.

         A.

         We elicit the facts from the record, including the trial testimony.

         In 1997, thirteen-year-old eighth grader H.B. met forty-three-year-old defendant at the McGinnis Middle School in Perth Amboy, where he was employed as a science teacher. Defendant introduced himself as "the neighboring science teacher." They spoke several times a week by telephone and later added instant messaging. H.B. confessed to having problems with her parents at home.

         In the spring of 1998, defendant encouraged H.B. to enroll in his twice-weekly Greek and Latin course. The class met regularly at the school and once at defendant's home in Perth Amboy. When H.B. graduated from middle school in June 1998, their communications continued, becoming more intimate. She viewed it as the equivalent of a dating relationship. They met often at a local park and in June or July 1998, they kissed "passionately" for the first time.

         Shortly after her fourteenth birthday, H.B. met the defendant in the park. Defendant told her to lift up her skirt and warned that "this is going to hurt a little bit, but this is good for you." He then engaged in vaginal intercourse with her. The pattern continued as H.B. entered high school. She described the relationship as dominant-submissive, with the defendant in the dominant role.

         At the same time, defendant was in a sexual relationship with a fellow teacher. In H.B.'s senior year, the teacher discovered in defendant's email account a photo of H.B. wearing what appeared to be a bikini top sitting in defendant's car. She reported it to the then-named Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS). Both defendant and H.B. denied any impropriety, causing DYFS to send a letter to H.B.'s mother indicating that they had done an investigation and found no basis for allegations of illicit sexual contact.

         H.B. started college in the fall of 2002. Her liaisons with the defendant continued while she was in college. Their relationship became tense. He quizzed her on whether she was dating anyone and what she was doing in her free time. He occasionally visited her at her college. While on break, H.B. returned home and visited her old middle school to see her former teachers. She found defendant in his classroom and ultimately performed oral sex on him in an adjoining room. During winter break from college, H.B.'s mother saw an email from the defendant asking H.B. if she was prepared to submit to him in the ways he wanted and whether she was open to a future with him. At that time, H.B. did not confide in her parents the nature and extent of her relationship with defendant.

         In 2009, H.B. called a family meeting with her parents and her siblings. She told them about her relationship with defendant but did not want to bring charges against him at that time. Approximately one year later, H.B. contacted a detective at the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office with her information about the defendant. In addition to conducting numerous interviews, the detective obtained authorization to record conversations between defendant and H.B.

         With the detective's help, H.B. scheduled a dinner with the defendant. She wore a hidden recording device to capture their conversation. At dinner, she questioned defendant about why he started the relationship with her when she was fourteen instead of when she was nineteen. She pointedly asked him, "How could you rape a fourteen-year-old?" Defendant made no admissions or denials; instead he steered the conversation away from the accusations.

         In addition to the recorded evidence, defendant's ex-wife turned over a CD of approximately sixty-five photos that she had found in her yard in 2002. The CD's contents ranged from hardcore photos of sexual acts between defendant and H.B. to suggestive pictures of H.B. in various states of undress. The detective also interviewed H.B.'s parents, defendant's co-workers, defendant's former girlfriends, defendant's ex-wife, and several other parties.

         Defendant was arrested three days after the recorded dinner with H.B. On October 1, 2010, a Middlesex County grand jury indicted defendant on one count of first-degree aggravated sexual assault, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a); two counts of second-degree sexual assault, contrary to N.J.S.A. ...


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