In State v. Jamal Wade (A-31-21/085198) (Decided November 16, 2022), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that it was error to admit the defendant’s statements after detectives failed to honor his invocation of the right to counsel. The court further found that the error was not harmless in light of the circumstantial nature of the evidence against defendant and his statements’ capacity to undermine his credibility before the jury.
Facts of State v. Wade
After determining that defendant Jamal Wade was a suspect in a shooting, two detectives approached defendant on the street, handcuffed him, and told him that he was under arrest for murder. Defendant was brought to headquarters for questioning.
A detective read defendant his Miranda rights and explained that “if you want to speak to us, you know you have to waive the rights.” Defendant stated, “I got a lawyer,” and said, “Let me talk to him.” After further discussion, during which a detective told defendant that he was not under arrest, another detective asked, “Are you verbally agreeing to speak to [us] without your lawyer?” Defendant responded, “Yeah, verbally. . . . If I’m not under arrest, I don’t have to talk to anybody.”
The interview continued, and defendant admitted that he was depicted in a video from a store where a stolen car tied to the murder had been captured on camera on the night of the shooting. After the detectives explained that additional footage placed him at different locations throughout the night and connected him to the stolen car, defendant stated, “Now I need to call my lawyer. This just got bad.” The detectives ended the interview and formally charged and booked defendant.
The State moved to admit defendant’s statements from the interrogation.
After a hearing, the judge ruled defendant’s statements admissible, finding that defendant waived his rights. Defendant’s statements were played at trial, and defendant was convicted on all counts. The Appellate Division affirmed, concluding that defendant had never exercised his right to an attorney and had knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his Miranda rights.
NJ Supreme Court Decision in State v. Wade
The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed. Because the parties agreed that the police violated defendant’s Miranda rights by failing to honor his unambiguous request for counsel, the only issue before the court was it was harmless error to admit the defendant’s subsequent statements.
The New Jersey Supreme Court answered in the affirmative. “We conclude that the State cannot meet its heavy burden of proving that this Miranda violation was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division,” the court wrote.
In reaching its decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court emphasized that an error is rarely found to be harmless when the State violates a defendant’s right against self-incrimination. Under State v. Tillery, 238 N.J. 293, 320-22 (2019), any error in the admission of the defendant’s statement to police was found harmless (a) in light of the “overwhelming” evidence against the defendant and (b) because the disputed statements contained “little — if any — incriminating evidence relevant to [the crime of conviction].”
The New Jersey Supreme Court went on to find that “this case is no exception to that general principle.” In support, it noted that the defendant’s case was not an instance of overwhelming, direct evidence.
“In a case such as this — where the State’s theory hinges on circumstantial evidence of a defendant’s location at a particular time — a self-identifying, self-inculpatory statement that colors the defendant as a liar is not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt,” the court wrote. “While police may extract such statements through interrogation, they must do so within the confines of the law. We are satisfied that did not happen in this case.” The New Jersey Supreme subsequently conclude that a new trial was necessary to rectify the detectives’ failure to honor the defendant’s Miranda rights.