Jury Questions and Ambiguous Answers (Part 3)

by | Sep 13, 2023 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

Justice Fasciale continued in relevant part: We conclude the error was clearly capable of producing an unjust result because such a suggestion — that being a supervisor (element three) is sufficient to establish that a defendant occupied a high-level position (element four) — could have led the jury to find the State proved defendants were “high-level” leaders merely by proving they were “supervisors.” See State v. Harmon (1986) (“Jury instructions must adequately define the offense and cover all the essential elements. The test for plain error related to a jury charge is whether in the circumstances the error possessed a clear capacity for producing an unjust result.” If the jury had been told that it could find element three without finding element four, its verdict on the kingpin charges against defendants might have been not guilty. We therefore agree with the Appellate Division that defendants’ convictions must be vacated, although for a different reason.

We next address the Appellate Division’s conclusion that the trial court should have molded “the jury instructions to address the varying levels of authority of each individual defendant” in the drug trafficking network. We conclude such tailoring was unwarranted.

The Appellate Division noted that “the model charge does not include language from Alexander that explains, ‘a “high-level” or “upper-echelon” “leader” of such an organization is one who occupies a significant or important position in the organization and exercises substantial authority and control over its operations.'” Id. at 110. The appellate court did “not go so far as to rule that this additional language from Alexander must be charged to the jury in all leader cases” but stressed that “the error in this case was not just the failure to read a few critical words from Alexander but also the failure to mold the jury instructions to address the varying levels of authority of each individual defendant.” Id. at 110 n.5. “In the unusual circumstances of this case,” the Appellate Division “believed this additional explanatory language was necessary” and that it was plain error not to add it to the charge. Id. at 105 n.3, 110.

The Drug Kingpin stature at issue requires a mandatory life sentence upon conviction at trial. It also requires a mandatory minimum of 25 years without parole ineligibility.