In the consolidated cases of State v. Mark Melvin (A-44-19/083298) (Decided September 23, 2021) and State v. Michelle Paden-Battle (A-13-20/084603) (Decided September 23, 2021), the Supreme Court of New Jersey addressed whether a trial judge can consider a defendant’s alleged conduct for crimes for which a jury returned a not guilty verdict during sentencing. The court concluded that fundamental fairness prohibits courts from doing so.
Facts of State v. Melvin
A jury found Melvin guilty of second-degree unlawful possession of a handgun and, after two trials, not guilty of the most serious charges against him, including first-degree murder and first-degree attempted murder. At his second sentencing, the trial court — notwithstanding the jury’s not-guilty verdicts on the murder charges —determined that the evidence at trial supported the conclusion that Melvin shot the victims.
Citing United States v. Watts, 519 U.S. 148 (1997), the trial judge found that it was within the court’s broad discretion at sentencing to consider all circumstances of the case, including evidence that Melvin was the shooter. Despite the jury’s verdict, the trial court found that Melvin not only possessed the weapon, but used it to shoot three people. The trial court sentenced Melvin to a term of sixteen years’ imprisonment with an eight-year period of parole ineligibility. The Appellate Division affirmed that sentence.
Facts of State v. Paden-Battle
A jury found Paden-Battle guilty of kidnapping, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, and felony murder. The jury acquitted Paden-Battle of the remaining seven counts, including first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder.
At sentencing, the same judge who presided over Melvin’s case again relied on Watts to make findings of fact, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Paden-Battle, despite having been acquitted of the most serious murder charges, was the mastermind who orchestrated the victim’s murder. The trial court stated that Paden-Battle falsified her testimony and found that she was the moving force behind the murder and ordered her co-conspirators to act. The trial court sentenced Paden-Battle to a sixty-year sentence. On appeal, the Appellate Division vacated Paden-Battle’s sentence and remanded the matter for resentencing, holding that the trial court enhanced her sentence based on its belief — a belief contrary to the jury’s verdict — that Paden-Battle ordered the execution.
NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in State v. Melvin and State v. Paden-Battle
The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed in Melvin and affirmed in Paden-Battle. In support of its decision, the court cited Article I, Paragraph 1 of the New Jersey Constitution, which
bestows upon all citizens certain natural and unalienable rights. According to the court, the doctrine of fundamental fairness, which “protects against arbitrary and unjust government action,” flows from those rights and prohibits courts from subjecting a defendant to enhanced sentencing for conduct as to which a jury found that defendant not guilty.
The New Jersey Supreme Court first concluded that the Supreme Court’s decision in Watts, in which the justices held that “a jury’s verdict of acquittal does not prevent the sentencing court from considering conduct underlying the acquitted charge, so long as that conduct has been proved by a preponderance of the evidence,” did not control. In support, it cited United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), in which the Court appeared to limit Watts and minimize its precedential value. It also noted that the practice of relying on acquitted conduct in sentencing “has not gone unquestioned among federal judges, and approaches to the issue among state courts have been decidedly mixed.”
To resolve the case, the New Jersey Supreme Court turned to the New Jersey Constitution, emphasizing that the guarantee of the right to a criminal trial by jury is “inviolate.” The court wrote:
In order to protect that right, we cannot allow the finality of a jury’s not-guilty verdict to be put into question. To permit the re-litigation of facts in a criminal case under the lower preponderance of the evidence standard would render the jury’s role in the criminal justice process null and would be fundamentally unfair. In order to protect the integrity of our Constitution’s right to a criminal trial by jury, we simply cannot allow a jury’s verdict to be ignored through judicial fact-finding at sentencing. Such a practice defies the principles of due process and fundamental fairness.
With regard to Melvin, the jury determined that he had a gun but acquitted him of all charges that involved using the gun —or even having the purpose to use it unlawfully. Accordingly, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that the jury’s verdict should have ensured that Melvin retained the presumption of innocence for any offenses of which he was acquitted. In Paden-Battle’s case, the New Jersey Supreme Court noted that notwithstanding the jury’s not-guilty verdict as to conspiracy to commit murder and murder, the trial court determined that Paden-Battle had in fact “orchestrated,” “was the mastermind,” “the supervisor,” and “the driving force in this kidnapping and execution of Regina Baker.”
Thus, the New Jersey Supreme Court went on to hold that “the findings of juries cannot be nullified through lower-standard fact findings at sentencing.” It further explained:
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 New Jersey Supreme Court also emphasized that although it was overruling the trial court’s reasoning and reliance on Watts, it found its approach to be reasonable. “That reliance was a reasonable approach adopted by a number of other jurisdictions with regard to an issue that this Court had yet to consider,” the court wrote. “Although we have found today — as is true with regard to many constitutional issues — that our State 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.”