NJ Supreme Court Rules Affidavit Is Physical Evidence in Witness Tampering Case

NJ Supreme Court Rules Affidavit Is Physical Evidence in Witness Tampering Case

In State v. Isaiah J. Knight (A-39-22/087822) (Decided March 5, 2024), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that a sought-after affidavit was physical evidence of the crimes of witness tampering and kidnapping for which the Defendant and others has been charged. Accordingly, it was subject to reciprocal discovery under Rule 3:3-13(b)(2)(B) and (D).

Facts of State v. Knight

On June 1, 2021, Tyzier White was fatally shot as he stood outside of the Neptune Lounge in Newark. Two men, known by their nicknames as “Zay” and “DJ Neptune,” witnessed the shooting. Both men provided sworn statements in which they identified the shooter, and both later selected defendant Isaiah Knight’s photograph from a photo array. On June 16, Knight was arrested.

On December 21, 2021, Zay gave a statement to law enforcement, claiming that a woman he met online took him to a residence in Newark. At some point after arriving at the residence and spending time with the woman, three individuals, including two masked men armed with guns, entered the room where Zay was. Zay stated that he was given a written affidavit and told to copy it.

The affidavit recanted Zay’s original statement to law enforcement identifying defendant as the shooter. After Zay copied the recanting affidavit, the captors released him. The Defendant’s sister and cousin were identified as two of the perpetrators and charged with witness tampering. A superseding indictment also charged the Defendant with second-degree conspiracy to commit witness tampering and two counts of second-degree kidnapping.

On April 4, 2022, the State filed a motion to compel discovery of the document Zay was allegedly forced to write, believing that the Defendant’s alleged co-conspirators turned it over to his counsel. The State’s certification in support of its motion to compel further alleged that DJ Neptune may have been forced to transcribe a similar recantation and that defense counsel might possess that document as well. The trial court granted the State’s motion to compel discovery, and the Appellate Division affirmed.

NJ Supreme Court Decision in State v. Knight

The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously affirmed. “The sought-after affidavit is physical evidence of the crimes of witness tampering and kidnapping for which defendant and others have been charged,” Justice Pierre-Louis wrote. “As such, the affidavit is subject to reciprocal discovery under Rule 3:3-13(b)(2)(B) and (D).”

In reaching its decision, the Court emphasized that although a defendant has a right to automatic and broad discovery of the evidence the State has gathered in support of its charges upon the issuance of an indictment, Rule 3:13-3 also places the onus on defense counsel to supply the prosecution with broad categories of items, often referred to as “reciprocal discovery.”

Under Rule 3:13-3(b)(2)(B) and (D), respectively, a defendant must provide the State with materials including “any relevant books, papers, [or] documents, including “writings,” that are “within the possession, custody or control of defense counsel,” as well as with “written statements, if any, . . . made by any witnesses whom the State may call as a witness at trial.”

However, the Rule “does not require discovery of a party’s work product consisting of internal reports, memoranda or documents made by that party or the party’s attorney or agents, in connection with the investigation, prosecution or defense of the matter.”

The New Jersey Supreme Court also noted thatconstitutional guarantees may bar compelling disclosure of certain materials in certain situations. For instance, under State v. Mingo, 77 N.J. 576 (1978), defense counsel can’t be compelled, via discovery, to give the State inculpatory expert materials it generated in preparation for trial unless the defense intends to introduce or use that expert evidence at trial. In State v. Williams, 80 N.J. 472 (1979), the New Jersey Supreme Court expanded the ruling to include statements or summaries of statements made by a State witness to defense counsel when the defense does not intend to use the statements at trial.

In this case, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that because the affidavit’s creation was allegedly the result of a kidnapping and witness intimidation plot for which the Defendant and two other individuals have been criminally charged, it was physical evidence of a crime and did not fall within the exception to the discovery obligations set forth in Rule 3:13-3(d).

“It is not the product of the defense investigation or attorney work product, and it therefore does not fall within the exception to the discovery obligations set forth in Rule 3:13-3(d). Rather, the affidavit is a relevant writing potentially in defense counsel’s possession pursuant to Rule 3:13-3(b)(2)(B),” Justice Pierre-Louis wrote. “There is no question that this type of physical evidence falls squarely within defendant’s required reciprocal discovery obligations under that Rule.”

The Court further found that compelling defense counsel to turn over in discovery an item in his possession that is physical evidence of a crime does not trigger the same Sixth Amendment concerns found in Williams and Mingo. It also determined that the Defendant’s argument that compelling the discovery of this affidavit violates his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination was “similarly unavailing.”

As Justice Pierre-Louis explained, “The State certified that it believes the affidavit is in defense counsel’s possession after having been turned over to counsel by defendant’s alleged co-conspirators. The discovery request, therefore, is directed to counsel, not defendant, and it pertains to materials allegedly provided by others.”

He added: “Again, the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination cannot be asserted by or on behalf of third parties because the Fifth Amendment right is personal to defendant.”

Finally, the New Jersey Supreme Court advised that if counsel is in possession of the affidavits and turns them over, the State must take precautions in introducing the affidavits at trial to avoid identifying defense counsel as the source of the documents so as not to prejudice defendant before the jury.

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