In Brief

Juries mulling child assault cases must be told corporal punishment is legal, court rules

By: - August 19, 2022 6:23 am

The jury hearing the case of a Monmouth County grandmother accused of assaulting her grandchildren should have been told that some instances of corporal punishment are exempt from that charge, the court ruled. (Getty Images)

Courts hearing child endangerment cases must instruct juries that corporal punishment is legal in New Jersey, as long as it’s not excessive, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

In a unanimous decision, the state’s top court vacated the conviction of a Monmouth County grandmother who was convicted in 2018 of simple assault after she was accused of abusing her four grandchildren.

The oldest child, then 17, told police in 2016 that she ran away from their Keansburg home because her grandmother, identified only as A.L.A. in court records, physically abused her and her siblings. Child protective workers removed the children from her care after the 17-year-old recorded audio of her grandmother hitting the youngest, then 3, with a leather belt, according to the ruling.

A jury later found the woman guilty of simple assault but not child endangerment — possibly because the court instructed the jurors about reasonable corporal punishment for the child endangerment charge, but not for simple assault, Justice Fabiana Pierre-Louis wrote. That erroneous instruction could have led to an “unjust result,” she wrote.

“The jury acquitted defendant of the very same conduct under the child endangerment statute that it found defendant guilty of under the simple assault statute … Had the same instruction been explicitly given to the jury for the simple assault charge, there is a real possibility that the jury could have reached a different result on that charge,” the ruling says.

In New Jersey, physical punishment such as spanking and slapping is forbidden in schools but allowed in homes, as long as it’s not so severe it leaves bruises, marks, or injuries.

In the Monmouth County case, the grandmother’s attorney argued “every spanking is a simple assault” if juries don’t hear that caveat.

The grandmother was sentenced to fines and penalties totaling $575, according to court documents. In a split decision, an appellate panel upheld her assault conviction. But Pierre-Louis’s decision overturns it and returns the case back to the trial court for reconsideration.

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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.