On January 16, 2019, the New Jersey Supreme court decided the Middlesex County case of State v. Guillermo Santamaria. Justice Timpone wrote for a unanimous court. The principle issues involved the permissible use of graphic photographs and prosecutorial comment regarding the defendant’s silence. These are highly discretionary evidentiary issues. In cases like these, the high court usually does not grant certification unless there was a perceived clear error in judgement by the Appellate Division.
Justice Timpone held in relevant part: Former middle school teacher Guillermo Santamaria was tried and convicted of aggravated sexual assault and official misconduct for his sexual relationship with a student at his school from the time she was fourteen. The Court considers whether the trial court’s admission of sixty-five photographs — approximately fourteen of which were sexually graphic — amounted to plain error. The Court also examines whether the State committed reversible error by commenting, during summation, on defendant’s silence when the victim, H.B., accused him of having sexual relations with her while she was a minor on multiple occasions over many years.
In 1997, thirteen-year-old H.B. met forty-three-year-old defendant at McGinnis Middle School in Perth Amboy, where he was a science teacher. In the spring of 1998, defendant encouraged H.B. to enroll in one of his courses. When she graduated from middle school in 1998, their communications continued, becoming more intimate. Shortly after her fourteenth birthday, H.B. met the defendant in a park, where he engaged in vaginal intercourse with her. The pattern continued as H.B. entered high school, and then college.
In 2010, H.B. contacted a detective at the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office with information about defendant. The detective obtained authorization to record conversations between defendant and H.B. With the detective’s help, H.B. scheduled a dinner with the defendant and wore a recording device to capture their conversation. She questioned him about why he started the relationship with her and asked, “How could you rape a fourteen-year-old?” Defendant made no admissions or denials. Defendant’s ex-wife turned over a CD of approximately sixty-five photos that she had found in her yard in 2002. The CD’s contents ranged from hardcore photos of sexual acts between defendant and H.B. to suggestive pictures of H.B. in various stages of undress. A grand jury indicted defendant on one count of first-degree aggravated sexual assault, two counts of second-degree sexual assault, and two counts of official misconduct.
The fact pattern begs the question of how the ex-wife could have held onto these photos for so long without turning them over to the police. A related question would be if there was any indication that the photos were altered.