The New Jersey Supreme Court continued in relevant part: The trial judge abused his discretion by finding Melvin was the shooter by a preponderance of the evidence and considering that conduct in his sentencing decision.” At the retrial of the deadlocked counts, Melvin was acquitted of murder and aggravated assault, and the State dismissed the drug charges. The same judge who presided over the first trial and sentencing handled Melvin’s retrial and resentencing. The judge again cited Watts in his determination that “the evidence at the trial supported a conclusion that Melvin was the shooter of the two individuals” at the restaurant, adding, contrary to the jury’s verdict, that Melvin “not only . . . possessed said weapon, but he used it to shoot upon three other human beings.” The trial court resentenced Melvin to an extended term, which the Appellate Division affirmed on appeal. The Court granted Melvin’s petition for certification, “limited to the issue of whether the sentencing judge could consider defendant’s conduct even though the jury acquitted defendant of the underlying crimes.” 240 N.J. 549 (2020).
In State v. Paden-Battle, Paden-Battle was indicted in connection with the murder of Regina Baker for offenses including kidnapping, murder, felony murder, gang criminality, and weapons offenses. After a trial — before the same judge who presided over Melvin’s trials and sentencings — the jury convicted Paden-Battle on the charges of kidnapping, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, and felony murder, and acquitted PadenBattle of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and both weapons offenses. In sentencing Paden-Battle to sixty years’ imprisonment, the judge noted that “Regina Baker would be alive today” if not for Paden-Battle, who, the court added, “was the mastermind” of Baker’s kidnapping and execution. The court stated that PadenBattle “was in charge” because, “although she did not pull the trigger,” the shooters “did so on her orders.” On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed Paden-Battle’s convictions but vacated her sentence and remanded the matter for resentencing. 464 N.J. Super. 125, 131 (App. Div. 2020). The court concluded that there was “no doubt that the sentence was enhanced because the judge believed defendant ordered Baker’s execution,” “despite the jury verdict, and enhanced the sentence imposed.” Id. at 151. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted certification, limited to the sentencing issue. 244 N.J. 233 (2020).
These consolidated appeals demonstrate the behind-the scenes considerations that go into judge’s and prosecutors’ decisions. At the time that these issues were decided by the trial courts and the related decisions were made to raise the issues on appeal. The trial courts and Attorney General’s Office was likely anticipating a different result in light of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s pro-prosecution trend in the wake of former Governor Christie’s judicial appointments.