Judges can’t ignore jury verdicts in deciding sentencing, N.J.’s top court rules

By: - September 23, 2021 1:20 pm

The decision stems from a 2018 case involving an apparently abused infant whose parents were stripped of custody after trial. (Courtesy of NJ Courts)

Judges cannot consider conduct defendants are acquitted of in deciding how to sentence them when they are found guilty of lesser offenses, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision issued Thursday.

The ruling came in the consolidated appeal of two defendants who were tried in unrelated cases that left three people dead and one injured in 2012 in Newark. In both cases, the defendants — Mark Melvin and Michelle Paden-Battle — were acquitted of the most serious charges against them but convicted of lesser charges.

Superior Court Judge Martin Cronin considered the more serious offenses in deciding to sentence Melvin to 20 years in prison and Paden-Battle to 60 years. But a judge cannot act as “a thirteenth juror,” Justice Fabiana Pierre-Louis wrote in the court’s ruling. Even if a verdict is “egregiously erroneous,” Pierre-Louis wrote, a judge who disregards it when deciding punishment undermines the importance of a jury.

“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,” Pierre-Louis wrote. “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 court ordered resentencings for both Melvin and Paden-Battle — with a different judge.

Melvin initially was indicted on nine counts, including murder, for an ambush at a restaurant that left two men dead and the female owner injured. A jury found him guilty of unlawful possession of a handgun but deadlocked on the more serious charges, and another jury acquitted him of those more serious charges in a second trial. But Cronin presided over both cases and cited trial evidence to decide Melvin used the gun to murder, and ordered the maximum sentence.

In Paden-Battle’s case, she was indicted for murder, kidnapping, and other offenses in the homicide of a Jersey City woman. A jury acquitted her of the most serious murder charges against her, but Cronin enhanced her sentence after declaring her to be “the mastermind” who orchestrated the gang-related slaying.

Federal judges have questioned the “constitutionally troubling” practice of relying on acquitted conduct in sentencing, saying it “guts the role of the jury in preserving individual liberty and preventing oppression by the government,” Pierre-Louis noted.

Still, the issue among state courts is mixed, prompting the New Jersey Supreme Court to root their ruling in the state Constitution’s heightened protection of due process rights, which guarantee a defendant’s rights to a fair application of the law before they can be imprisoned.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey, and the Seton Hall University School of Law Center for Social Justice filed briefs supporting Melvin and Paden-Battle, while the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office lent support to the state.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.