Affirmative Defenses and Jury Unanimity (Part 1)

by | Jul 19, 2023 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

Affirmative Defenses and Jury UnanimityOn March 16, 2023, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Union County case of State v. Macchia. The principal issue before the Court under N.J.S.A. 2C:1-13 was whether a unanimous verdict rejecting self-defense was sufficient to sustain defendant’s conviction for reckless manslaughter, or whether the jury was also required to unanimously agree as to why it rejected the self-defense claim.

Justice Wainer Apter wrote for the Court in relevant part: Our holding that unanimity was not required as to why self-defense was rejected in this case is consistent with the approach of every other court to have considered the question. All have held that a jury need not unanimously agree on the underlying basis for rejecting self-defense; it need only unanimously agree that the prosecution disproved self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. See, e.g., Mekoshvili, 280 A.3d at 398 (holding due process requires only that the jury unanimously agree that the State disproved self-defense, even if they “disagree as to the specific reason why the crime was not justified”); People v. Mosely, 488 P.3d 1074, 1076-81 (Colo. 2021) (“The jury need not unanimously agree on the specific reason that self-defense was disproven, so long as it unanimously agrees that the prosecution disproved self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.”); Rodriguez v. State, 212 S.W.3d 819, 821 (Tex. Ct. App. 2006) (“The jurors must unanimously agree that the defendant’s conduct was not justified by self-defense. It is not necessary, however, that they unanimously agree as to why.”). Further, “ordinarily, a general instruction on the requirement of unanimity suffices to instruct the jury that it must be unanimous on whatever specifications it finds to be the predicate of a guilty verdict.”

Jury unanimity is required to ensure the prosecution proves every element of an offense beyond a reasonable doubt. Without the unanimity requirement, some jurors may vote guilty based on a theory that other jurors rejected. If the other jurors vote guilty on an alternative theory, there would be a risk of a conviction even though all of the required elements were not unanimously proven beyond a reasonable doubt.