The New Jersey Supreme Court continued in relevant part: The Appellate Division reasoned that the new procedural rule was essential “to avoid whenever possible the need to reverse an otherwise valid jury verdict” when the failure to instruct the jury sua sponte on passion/provocation manslaughter constitutes plain error. Id. at 297-98. The court also concluded that “trial judges, not appellate courts, should decide in the first instance what jury instructions should be delivered,” id. at 298, and the decision should be “placed on the record to facilitate appellate review,” id. at 301. The Appellate Division emphasized that its new procedural rule did not “alter the ‘clearly-indicated’ standard that applies when the defendant has not requested the passion/provocation manslaughter charge or objects to it.” Id. at 301-02. The new rule was simply designed “to ensure that the applicable standard . . . is applied in the first instance by the trial court before a verdict is rendered, rather than by an appellate court reviewing a cold record.” Id. at 302.
The Appellate Division cited only two published cases in the past three decades in which a jury verdict was reversed because the court’s failure to instruct the jury on passion/provocation manslaughter sua sponte, when the defendant did not request the charge, was found to be plain error. Id. at 297 n.16, 298 n.17 (citing State v. Viera (App. Div. 2001), and State v. Robinson (1994), respectively). In their comprehensive briefing, defendant Timothy Canfield, the State, the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey, and the Attorney General cite only one additional case, State v. Blanks (App. Div. 1998). Given the apparent infrequency of such plain errors, we do not view the Appellate Division’s proposed procedural rule to be critical to protecting otherwise valid jury verdicts from reversal.
It seems the Appellate Division was more concerned with avoiding the work involved with deciding murder conviction appeals then they were with reversing “an otherwise valid jury verdict.” Given the deference that trial courts have under the “plain error” standard and the infrequency of reversals under these circumstances, “otherwise valid” reads like a euphemism for “invalid.”