N.J. Supreme Court denies ex-cop’s bid for new trial in fatal bar fight

Juries don’t have to explain why they reject self-defense claims, court says

By: - March 16, 2023 12:33 pm

Juries that reject defendants' self-defense claims don't have to unanimously agree on exactly why they do so, New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Rachel Wainer Apter wrote in a unanimous decision on March 16, 2023. (Amanda Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

The New Jersey Supreme Court has upheld the manslaughter conviction of a former Newark police officer who shot a man to death during a drunken bar brawl.

Joseph Macchia, a 14-year veteran of the Newark force, had argued he shot construction worker Michael Gaffney three times with his service revolver outside a Union bar in May 2016 because he feared for his life after the pair’s play-fighting turned violent.

In appealing his 2018 conviction, Macchia’s attorney said the jury failed to explain why they didn’t buy his claim of self-defense.

But in a ruling issued Thursday, the court decreed that juries that unanimously reject self-defense claims do not also have to unanimously agree on or explain why they do so.

Self-defense is an acceptable defense for homicide under state law, but only if the killer proves that they reasonably and honestly believed the force used was immediately necessary to protect against death or serious harm, that they didn’t provoke the encounter with an intent to kill or harm, and that they could not safely retreat.

Attorney John Vincent Saykanic, Macchia’s attorney, pressed the court to require juries that reject self-defense claims to unanimously agree as to how prosecutors disproved self-defense. Absent that, their verdict is an “unconstitutional ‘patchwork/fragmented or less than unanimous verdict,’” he argued, according to the ruling.

But Justice Rachel Wainer Apter, writing for the unanimous court, cited precedential cases in rejecting that request as well as Macchia’s bid for a new trial.

“Every court to have considered the question has held that a jury need not unanimously agree on the underlying basis for rejecting self-defense; it need only unanimously agree that the prosecution disproved self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt,” she wrote.

In Macchia’s case, prosecutors conceded that the ex-officer feared for his life, but they argued that he provoked the encounter and ignored opportunities to retreat to safety.

“All agree that to disprove self-defense, the state need not prove that defendant’s belief was not honest and reasonable, and that defendant provoked the encounter, and that defendant could have retreated,” Wainer Apter wrote. “Instead, if the state proves any of the disqualifiers beyond a reasonable doubt, it has disproven self-defense.”

Macchia had gone to Paddy’s Place with his wife to celebrate news of her pregnancy and encountered his acquaintance Gaffney outside the bar, where both went to smoke cigarettes, according to the ruling. But friendly tussling turned into a bloody fistfight that Macchia, by witness accounts, was losing.

The combatants separated twice, but after Gaffney retreated inside the bar, Macchia stood in the doorway enticing him back out, according to the ruling. Their third brawl was deadly for Gaffney, who Macchia shot in the chest, abdomen, and shoulder, according to the ruling.

Prosecutors argued Macchia could have safely retreated before that final encounter but instead provoked Gaffney into fighting again, according to the ruling.

Saykanic told the New Jersey Monitor Thursday that he disagrees with but respects the court’s opinion.

Macchia used his gun because he feared for his life, he added.

“He had a fractured nose, he had a bad head injury, he had a fractured wrist, abrasions on his knees. He felt that he had no recourse but to do this, and that’s borne out by the facts,” Saykanic said. “If this was a stand-your-ground state, he wouldn’t have been charged. Unfortunately, New Jersey is not one of those 25 or so states that have stand-your-ground laws.”

Macchia, 41, was sentenced to six years in prison for reckless manslaughter. He is set to be released in late August, prisons records show.

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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.