On September 23, 2021, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Essex County companion cases of State v. v. Michelle Paden-Battle and State v. Mark Melvin. The principal issue concerned the sentencing judge’s consideration of conduct for which the defendants were acquitted by juries.
Justice Pierre-Louis wrote for a unanimous court in relevant part: One of the most important tenets of the criminal justice system is the finality of a jury’s verdict of acquittal. These consolidated appeals test that principle through a common legal issue: whether a trial judge can consider at sentencing a defendant’s alleged conduct for crimes for which a jury returned a not guilty verdict.
In State v. Melvin, Melvin was indicted on nine counts in connection with a fatal shooting in a restaurant, including charges of murder, aggravated assault, and weapon possession and drug offenses. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found Melvin guilty of unlawful possession of a handgun but remained deadlocked on the outstanding counts. With the discretion to sentence Melvin to an extended term of ten to twenty years, the trial court sentenced Melvin to the maximum, citing United States v. Watts, 519 U.S. 148 (1997), in his consideration of Melvin’s conduct — specifically, the evidence relating to the murder charges as to which the jury was hung. The sentencing judge determined that “by a preponderance of the credible evidence at trial, . . . Melvin did in fact use a firearm, which resulted in the death of the two victims and the injury to the restaurant owner.” The Appellate Division affirmed Melvin’s conviction but remanded the matter for resentencing, holding that the sentencing judge incorrectly applied Watts . . . and that a judge cannot act as a “thirteenth juror” by “substituting his judgment for that of the jury.”
Justice Pierre-Louis was my law school classmate at Rutgers. Since her appointment to the Court, its pro-prosecution trend has been tempered. Tempered in particular has been the trend towards adopting federal constitutional law as opposed to law that is more protective of citizens’ rights under our state constitution. The use of acquitted conduct at sentencing is permissible under the federal constitution.