Affirmative Defenses and Jury Unanimity (Part 4)

by | Jul 25, 2023 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

Affirmative Defenses and Jury UnanimityThe Court concluded with the following: Finally, in State v. Gentry, the State presented evidence that during a theft, the defendant used force against a store employee, Tiffany Davis, and store manager, David Lowe. During deliberations, the jury sent out a note, “indicating that all jurors agreed that ‘defendant knowingly used force against’ either Davis or Lowe, but one group of jurors believed defendant knowingly used force on Davis but not Lowe, and the other group believed defendant knowingly used force on Lowe but not Davis.” The note asked “whether that constituted ‘a unanimous vote.'” The judge responded that the jury could unanimously convict if all agreed that the defendant had used force against another, even if they disagreed as to whom the defendant had used force against. Over a dissent, the Appellate Division affirmed, holding “the identity of the victim was immaterial.” This Court disagreed, holding the dissenting judge was correct that “the jurors had to agree unanimously on which acts were committed against which victim.”

Unlike in Gentry, the State in this case did not introduce evidence that defendant committed different acts against different victims. Instead, as the Appellate Division correctly held, “the State presented only one theory to support the charge of reckless manslaughter — defendant and Gaffney engaged in a fist fight, which ended in defendant shooting and killing Gaffney.”

We also disagree with defendant’s contention that the jury’s questions showed “tangible indication of jury confusion,” or a “patchwork/fragmented” verdict. The jury was initially uncertain about whether, to reject self-defense, it needed to find that the State proved beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant’s belief was not honest and reasonable, and that defendant provoked the encounter, and that defendant could have retreated to safety, or whether it could reject self-defense after finding that the State had proven only one of those alternatives. But the trial court answered — correctly — that if the State “has proved any one of these three items beyond a reasonable doubt, then the defendant did not act in self-defense and you must go on to consider the crime of reckless manslaughter.” After the trial court answered the jury’s questions and accurately explained the law, there was no “tangible indication” that the jury was confused about what facts it needed to decide to determine guilt.

Accordingly, we hold the trial court properly instructed the jury on the State’s burden in disproving self-defense and no specific unanimity charge was required. The judgment of the Appellate Division is affirmed and defendant’s request for a new trial is denied.

Chief Justice Rabner, Justice Patterson, Justice Pierre-Louis and Judge Sabatino joined in Justice Wainer Apter’s Opinion. Justices Solomon and Fasciale did not participate in the case. The defendant’s only recourse at this point would be to petition the Unpitted States Supreme Court for relief. He will likely have completed or be close to completing his five and one half years of parole ineligibility before the United States Supreme Court would issue a decision.