Lay Opinion and Harmless Error (Part 2)

by | Nov 20, 2023 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

The Court continued in relevant part: During defendant’s trial, Officer McGhee testified, in part narrating the videos as they were played for the jury. Campanella testified later, describing the steps taken in the investigation. After the State indicated its intent to replay the surveillance videos that the jury had already viewed during McGhee’s testimony, defense counsel objected. The State countered that Campanella would explain how the video “led him to find evidence, such as the shell casings and the bullets.” The trial court overruled the objection. As the videos were replayed, Campanella made references to the defendant firing or discharging the gun and turning toward the officer.

The State also presented the expert testimony of Randolph Toth of the State Police Laboratory Ballistics Unit, who opined that the weapon had not discharged accidentally the night of the incident. Defendant testified and denied that he had shot at McGhee or had any intent to injure the officer. He maintained that the gun discharged accidentally. The jury convicted defendant of attempted murder and other offenses. The Appellate Division found that the trial court had abused its discretion when it permitted Campanella to narrate the surveillance video but held that the error was harmless and affirmed. The Court granted certification.

The Court disagrees with the Appellate Division’s conclusion that the trial court should have excluded all the detective’s narration of the surveillance video. The trial court properly permitted the detective to testify about the manner in which he used the surveillance video to guide his investigation. Applying principles stated today in State v. Watson(2023), the detective’s testimony opining that the video showed defendant turning and firing his weapon should have been excluded from evidence. However, that error was harmless given the strength of the State’s evidence.

The two-judge appellate panel issued a “per curiam” decision. Those decisions are supposed to be reserved for cases involving such a straightforward application of the law to the facts that no judge has a basis for distinct analysis. That does not appear to be the case in light of the three-justice dissent.