Kidnapping and Jury Verdict Sheets (Part 2)

by | Oct 12, 2019 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

The majority continued in relevant part: In Galicia, we reviewed for plain error a verdict sheet addressing the passion/provocation manslaughter statute, which reduces a defendant’s offense from murder to manslaughter when “a homicide which would otherwise be murder under, other than felony murder, is ‘committed in the heat of passion resulting from a reasonable provocation.” There, the verdict sheet submitted to the jury at trial incorrectly “suggested that the jury would only reach the issue of passion/provocation if it found the defendant guilty of murder.”

Rejecting the Appellate Division’s conclusion that the mistaken instructions on the verdict sheet did not constitute error, we held that the verdict sheet error in this case was not a simple omission easily rectified by the jury charge. The jury had no copy of the trial court’s instructions in the jury room. It had only the verdict sheet as a written guide to structure its deliberations, and that verdict sheet directed it not to reach the issue of passion/provocation unless it found the defendant guilty of murder. That direction may have prevented the jury from considering passion/provocation simultaneously with its determination of defendant’s guilt or innocence on the murder charge, as required by N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4(b)(2) and State v. Coyle (1990).

We noted, however, the defendant’s position that when he committed the crime, he was “not motivated by rage, rejection, jealousy or a prior physical attack, but by nervousness, panic and confusion,” as well as his decision not to argue passion/provocation manslaughter or to seek a jury charge on that issue. In light of the trial evidence, we concluded that there was no rational basis for the trial court to charge the jury as to the elements of passion/provocation, and that the evidence would not have supported a jury finding on that issue. We therefore found the error in the verdict sheet to be harmless.

The majority is setting the stage for a “harmless error” finding in this case. Harmless error means that a mistake was made by the trial court, but the mistake was not serious enough to require reversal of the defendant’s conviction.