On January 11, 2023, the New Jersey Supreme decided the Camden County case of State v. Timothy Canfield. The principal issue before the Court under N.J.S.A. 2C:1-8 concerned a proposed rule requiring trial courts to consider a passion/provocation manslaughter jury instruction in conjunction with a self-defense instruction even if neither party requested the instruction.
The per curiam Court wrote in relevant part: We depart from the Appellate Division’s decision only as to whether a new procedural rule is warranted. The Appellate Division observed that in a murder prosecution in which self-defense is raised, defendants “often enough” appeal as plain error the trial court’s failure to sua sponte issue a passion/provocation instruction to the jury. Id. at 260. The Appellate Division rejected the “notion . . . that a court must instruct the jury on passion/provocation manslaughter whenever self-defense is raised in a murder prosecution.” Id. at 258. But the court held that “prophylactic measures” were “warrant[ed] . . . to ensure that this fact-sensitive issue is considered in the first instance by the trial court and not . . . by an appellate court after a verdict has already been rendered.” Id. at 260.
The Appellate Division therefore recommended a new procedural rule: when, in a murder prosecution, the trial court determines to instruct the jury on self-defense at the charge conference conducted pursuant to Rule 1:8-7(b), the court should also consider and make specific findings on the record as to whether to instruct the jury on the lesser-included offense of passion/provocation manslaughter, regardless of whether either party has requested that instruction. To implement its proposed new rule, the Appellate Division recommended that the Committee on Model Criminal Jury Charges consider revising the model jury instructions for murder, aggravated manslaughter, manslaughter, and self-defense. Id. at 301.
Per curiam opinions are supposed to exist in cases in which the application of the law to the facts is so straightforward that an individual judge has no reason to apply his or her unique analysis. The opinions are increasingly used in cases in which individual judges are concerned with how they will be viewed if their name is attached to the opinion. It stands to reason that if this were such a straightforward application of the law, the appellate panel that decided this case would not have been reversed.