September 10, 2019
certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
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).
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).
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
TIMPONE, J., writing for the Court.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
Court granted the State's petition for certification. 236
N.J. 235 (2018).
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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED,
defendant's convictions are REINSTATED, and the matter is
REMANDED for ...