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Accomplice Liability / Criminal Trial Error (Improper Jury Instructions)


by in Criminal Appeals, Criminal Defense

This recent case decided on appeal held that the the trial court failed to provide the jury with adequate instructions on the defendant’s accomplice charge in his criminal trial. Summary by Mark Friedman.

State v. Anthony Wilson, unpublished opinion, App. Div. Docket No. A-6243-07T4 (November 24, 2009) – “Because the jury instructions regarding accomplice liability were inaccurate and misleading, we reverse and remand for a new trial….

The State’s theory of the case was that defendant and the unknown assailants acted in concert with each other and shared a common purpose to commit an armed robbery of Jiminez, to commit carjacking against him, and to possess a weapon, the metal bar, for the unlawful purposes set forth in the indictment.

The State also theorized that defendant and the others conspired to commit the robbery…. It is notable that at the charge conference, it was the State, not defendant, that requested that lesser-included offenses be charged…. By making the proposal, the State acknowledged its recognition that, under its theory of the case, if Jiminez was believed, at least one of the perpetrators committed a first-degree armed robbery, but one or more of the others, including defendant, might have participated in the criminal episode with a lower degree of culpability depending upon their conduct and intent, making them guilty of only a lesser offense….

Nowhere did the judge instruct the jury that even if one or more of the perpetrators other than defendant committed a first-degree armed robbery against Jiminez, defendant could be found guilty of one of the lesser-included offenses if the jurors were not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant himself engaged in conduct and acted with a purpose to commit that armed robbery….

Instead, the instructions had the capacity to mislead the jury into believing that accomplice liability required a commonality of intent and purpose between the accomplice and principal. In going through each of the lesser-included offenses to first-degree robbery, the judge did not make any mention of accomplice liability principles and how defendant could have been guilty of one of those lesser-included offenses even though one or more of the other perpetrators may have been guilty of any one or more of the greater offenses….

[I]n these circumstances, it would be clearer if the jury were first instructed on first-degree robbery as the charged offense, and then given a separate and distinct charge on second-degree robbery, pointing out, of course, the difference of the missing element that would elevate it to first degree.

In doing so, it would be made clear to the jury that second-degree robbery is a separate offense from first-degree robbery and requires separate consideration as to its elements in terms of accomplice liability principles. We refer this issue to the Committee on Model Criminal Jury Charges for its consideration.” (Karen E. Truncale, A.D.P.D.)






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