On June 16, 2020, a three-judge appellate panel decided the Essex County case of State v. Michelle Paden-Battle. The principal issue under N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1 involved the propriety of the trial judge considering “facts” at sentencing that were rejected by the trial jury in acquitting the defendant of murder. This case was argued telephonically on May 21 because, with limited exceptions, in person appearances are prohibited due to the COVID outbreak.
Presiding Judge Clarkson Fisher wrote for the panel in relevant part: Michelle Paden-Battle set forth a series of events. She orchestrated, she was the master mind, she was the supervisor, she was the driving force in this kidnapping and execution of Regina Baker. In other statements, the judge stressed that defendant: used “her apparent authority within the Bloods in declaring that Regina Baker was food and that her life shall cease”; was “the moving force behind this senseless act of brutality”; exercised her “desire to impose gang-discipline as the motive for the murder of Ms. Baker”; and was “more culpable than the shooter due to her supervisory role over these co-defendants in the commission of the kidnapping and homicide” (emphasis added). In essence, the judge sentenced defendant based on his own view of the evidence, finding that even though defendant “did not pull the trigger,” others did “on her orders” (emphasis added). The State candidly acknowledges that this is what the judge did, arguing in its brief that “it was not improper for the judge to credit evidence that the jury did not.” We disagree.
“An acquittal is accorded special weight.” United States v. DiFrancesco, 449 U.S. 117, 129 (1980); see also State v. J.M. (App. Div. 2014), aff’d as modified, (2016). An acquittal means that the defendant retains the presumption of innocence; that the State failed to rebut that presumption. The Supreme Court stated long ago that “a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.” Coffin v. United States, 156 U.S. 432, 453 (1895). The Court invoked this concept again when reaching its landmark decision in In re Winship, 397 U.S. at 362-63, as did our own Supreme Court in State v. Hill (2009).
The State likely relied on federal sentencing precedent in arguing that the judge’s sentencing was proper. There are federal cases that say a jury’s acquittal is based on a failure to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. Since facts relied upon at sentencing need not be proven by proof beyond a reasonable doubt, a jury’s rejection does not foreclose the inquiry regarding whether the facts could be reasonably relied upon by the judge.