Aggravated Manslaughter and Lesser-Included Offenses (Part 1)

by | Feb 21, 2023 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

On August 17, 2022, a three-judge appellate panel decided the Hudson County case of State v. Scott Hahn. The principal issue under N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4 concerned the trial court’s failure to charge reckless manslaughter as a lesser-included offense of aggravated manslaughter.

Presiding Judge Messano wrote for the Appellate Division in relevant part: Here, it is undisputed the judge failed to instruct the jury on the lesser-included offense of reckless manslaughter. The evidence could clearly support a jury’s finding that defendant acted recklessly, but only with the possibility, as opposed to the probability, of causing another’s death. Instead, by only receiving instructions on aggravated manslaughter, the jury faced the all-or-nothing decision whether to acquit or convict defendant of the only charge presented for their consideration in counts one and two, i.e., aggravated manslaughter.

However, this appeal presents an unusual circumstance because of the State’s charging decision to indict defendant for both aggravated manslaughter and the lesser-included charge of vehicular homicide. The jury convicted him of both. Defendant implied during oral argument this was a deliberate stratagem to avoid lesser-included jury instructions in the context of the charge on aggravated manslaughter. We express no opinion on that assertion.

However, we disagree with the State’s contention that any error in failing to charge the jury with reckless manslaughter was harmless. First, while it is undisputed the judge accurately defined the elements of both aggravated manslaughter and vehicular homicide, she did so separately, without mention of any relationship between the two offenses. The verdict sheet directed the jury to return separate verdicts on each crime as to each victim. A properly instructed jury would have understood that it did not face an all-or-nothing decision on the aggravated manslaughter counts of the indictment, but rather it could acquit defendant of those charges and still find him guilty of causing the victims’ deaths by returning guilty verdicts, as already noted, as to the lesser-included reckless manslaughter, or on the two counts of vehicular homicide as lesser-included offenses.

Homicide convictions regarding multiple victims almost always result in consecutive sentences. When more than three victims are involved, the consecutive sentences are usually caped at three, with any remaining sentences running concurrently.