Sentencing Considerations and Acquittals (Part 6)

by | Nov 19, 2021 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

The New Jersey Supreme Court concluded with the following: The findings of juries cannot be nullified through lower-standard fact findings at sentencing. The trial court, after presiding over a trial and hearing all the evidence, may well have a different view of the case than the jury. But once the jury has spoken through its verdict of acquittal, that verdict is final and unassailable. The public’s confidence in the criminal justice system and the rule of law is premised on that understanding. Fundamental fairness simply cannot let stand the perverse result of allowing in through the back door at sentencing conduct that the jury rejected at trial.

The sentencing court’s reliance on Watts was a reasonable approach adopted by a number of other jurisdictions with regard to an issue that this Court had yet to consider. Although the Court finds today — as is true with regard to many constitutional issues — that the New Jersey Constitution offers greater protection against the consideration of acquitted conduct in sentencing than does the Federal Constitution, the sentencing court’s approach at the time was not unreasonable. Both Melvin and Paden-Battle have requested that their matters be assigned to a different judge should the Court agree that resentencing is appropriate. Although the trial judge’s interpretation of Watts was entirely logical and the Court has no doubt that on remand, the trial judge would adhere to the Court’s ruling, the Court believes that in this instance, reassigning these matters is the best course when viewing the cases through the eyes of the defendants. The judgment of the Appellate Division is reversed in Melvin and affirmed in Paden-Battle. Both matters are remanded for resentencing.

The Court balances competing interests in remanding the cases to different judges. On the one hand, they do not want to depict the trial judges as being biased. On the other hand, it would invite another round of appeals if harsh sentences are once again handed down after the cases are remanded to the same judges. The “eyes if the defendants” is an interesting take on the appropriate standard to apply. Usually, it is “the public’s perception” that controls in matters involving the recusal or re-assignment of judges.