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State v. Williams

Supreme Court of New Jersey

December 11, 2019

State of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Earnst Williams, a/k/a Ernest Williams, Defendant-Respondent.

          Argued September 10, 2019

          On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

          Frank J. Ducoat, Special Deputy Attorney General/Acting Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for appellant (Theodore N. Stephens, II, Acting Essex County Prosecutor, attorney; Lucille M. Rosano, Special Deputy Attorney General/Acting Assistant Prosecutor, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Brian P. Keenan, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for respondent (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Brian P. Keenan, of counsel and on the briefs).

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

          TIMPONE, J., writing for the Court.

         The Court considers whether the trial court properly excluded evidence proffered by defendant Earnst Williams, who shot and killed a victim during a purported drug deal.

         The victim and his friend "Craig" had previously purchased oxycodone from a supplier, "John." On this occasion, John had no supplies but referred the victim to defendant. When Craig and the victim arrived at the appointed location, the victim took $900 in cash and followed defendant into the building. Craig heard gun shots and called the police, who found the victim dead from gunshots to his abdomen and to the back of his head, with $500 on his body.

         On the night of the shooting, defendant made a series of admissions to several of his cohorts: he never had any drugs to sell because his intent was to rob the victim; he carried the gun to the transaction; a scuffle ensued when he attempted to rob the victim; and he shot the victim in the leg, then in the head, took some of his money, and then ran.

         The following day, Craig gave a statement to the police about the shooting and disclosed the victim's prior drug deals with John, all of which went "very smoothly."

         The police arrested defendant, who then asserted that the victim pulled a gun on him and was killed when the gun went off in an ensuing struggle. In an effort to establish that the victim brought the handgun used in the homicide, defendant later moved at a pretrial hearing to cross-examine Craig about his statement to the police concerning his and the victim's prior drug transactions with John. Although Craig referenced multiple drug deals in his statement to the police, the parties focused on one particular transaction that allegedly transpired in December 2011 at a public mall.

         At the hearing, defendant argued that the 2011 transaction demonstrated that the victim purchased narcotics not from physicians but on the "streets," from which one could infer that the victim knew of the risks and dangers associated with purchasing drugs on the "streets." Defendant hypothesized that because the victim was aware of those risks and dangers, the victim developed a self-protective pattern of carrying a firearm with him when he purchased drugs on the "streets." Defendant argued that pattern supported his theory that the victim brought the handgun used in his own homicide when he met with defendant to purchase narcotics in July 2012. All parties agreed that neither the victim nor Craig nor John brought a handgun to the December 2011 transaction.

         The trial court ultimately denied defendant's motion, relying on State v. Cofield, 127 N.J. 328 (1992), and N.J.R.E. 404(b). A jury found defendant guilty of multiple offenses. Defendant appealed his convictions and sentence, arguing that the trial court erred by: (1) not allowing defendant to cross-examine Craig about his and the victim's December 2011 drug transaction; and (2) imposing an excessive sentence.

         In reversing defendant's convictions, the Appellate Division ruled that the trial court erred by not allowing defendant to introduce relevant exculpatory evidence of the victim's prior drug purchase to support his self-defense claim. The Appellate Division explained that Cofield and Rule 404(b) are inapplicable when a defendant seeks to present other-crime evidence defensively and determined that defendant's proffered evidence should have been admitted because it was relevant. The appellate court did not consider the sentencing claim.

         The Court granted the State's petition for certification. 236 N.J. 235 (2018).

         HELD: The Court agrees with the Appellate Division's determination that Rule 404(b) was inapplicable here but finds that defendant's proffered evidence failed to meet the threshold requirement of admissibility: relevancy. It was therefore not admissible.

         1. When, as here, a defendant seeks to use other-crime evidence defensively -- sometimes referred to as reverse 404(b) evidence -- that defendant is free to present such evidence unconstrained by the admissibility requirements promulgated in Cofield. An accused is entitled to advance in his defense any evidence which may rationally tend to refute his guilt or buttress his innocence of the charge made. To determine whether a defendant may use other-crime evidence, courts must apply the relevance standard of Rule 401. (p. 12)

         2. Evidence must be relevant for it to be admissible. To be relevant, the evidence must first have probative value -- it must have a "tendency in reason to prove or disprove" a fact. N.J.R.E. 401. Necessarily, for evidence to be relevant, it must also be material. A material fact is one which is really in issue in the case. (pp. 13-14)

         3. Here, defendant sought to prove that the victim brought a handgun to the July 2012 transaction by introducing evidence about an earlier transaction to which the victim did not bring a handgun. Defendant's proffered evidence lacked probative value. Simply put, it was speculative, unproven, and ultimately irrelevant; it could not reasonably give rise to the inferences the defense sought to draw. Defendant failed to establish the "logical connection" required for relevance purposes between the evidence he sought to admit and the present case, and the evidence is therefore inadmissible under Rule 401. (pp. 14-16)

         4. Even if it were relevant, the evidence would be subject to exclusion under Rule 403 because it would have resulted in the needless presentation of cumulative evidence --other evidence had been admitted that tended to support the limited point for which defendant wished to introduce the proffered evidence. (pp. 16-17)

         The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED, defendant's convictions are REINSTATED, and the matter is REMANDED for ...

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