The Court continued in relevant part: The New Jersey Constitution’s guarantee of the right to a criminal trial by jury is “inviolate.” N.J. Const. art. I, ¶ 9. In order to protect the integrity of that right, a jury’s verdict cannot be ignored through judicial fact-finding, under the lower preponderance of the evidence standard, at sentencing. Such a practice defies the principles of due process and fundamental fairness.
Melvin was convicted of second-degree unlawful possession of a weapon and acquitted of two counts of first-degree murder, second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, and second-degree aggravated assault. In other words, the jury determined that Melvin had a gun but acquitted him of all charges that involved using the gun — or even having the purpose to use it unlawfully. Nevertheless, the trial court found by a preponderance of the evidence that Melvin used the firearm “to shoot upon three other human beings.” The jury’s verdict should have ensured that Melvin retained the presumption of innocence for any offenses of which he was acquitted.
And, in finding Paden-Battle guilty of kidnapping, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, and felony murder, the jury’s verdict reflected its conclusion, based on the evidence, that the victim’s death would not have occurred without the commission of the kidnapping in which Paden-Battle was involved. In finding Paden-Battle not guilty of the remaining offenses, however, the jury rejected the charges that Paden-Battle was guilty of first-degree murder or first-degree conspiracy to commit murder. Notwithstanding the jury’s not-guilty verdict as to conspiracy to commit murder and murder, the trial court determined that Paden-Battle had in fact “orchestrated,” “was the mastermind,” “the supervisor,” and “the driving force in this kidnapping and execution.”
The fact that both of these cases occurred in Essex County likely played a role in the judges’ decisions to go out on a limb to justify onerous sentences. Essex County is known for having a great volume of criminal cases and for having a high acquittal rate. With overburdened criminal court calendars and jurors who are less likely to trust the police and prosecutors, judges are likely tempted to keep people locked up for as long as possible. This is especially true after a jury trial since it uses up so much time and resources.