Admitted Violation of Defendant’s Miranda Rights, Which is Presumed to be Harmful Error, Was Not Harmless in This Case

State v. Wade, ___ N.J. ___ (2022). As Justice Solomon said in his unanimous opinion for the Supreme Court today in this murder case, New Jersey courts “rarely find an error to be harmless when the State violates a defendant’s right against self-incrimination. That is not only because the right to counsel is so precious, but also because self-inculpatory statements are powerful evidence of guilt that is not easily overcome” (citation omitted). As a result, a suspect’s statements made after detectives fail to cease questioning once the suspect invokes the right to counsel are “presumed involuntary” and are inadmissible at trial.

In today’s case, the State conceded that detectives violated defendant’s rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). Justice Solomon detailed the facts of that violation in full. But the State argued that the violation was harmless error, relying on State v. Tillery, 238 N.J. 293 (2019). In that case, the Supreme Court found that the evidence of defendant’s guilt was “overwhelming,” and the statements that the defendant sought to exclude contained “little — if any — incriminating evidence relevant to [the crime of which defendant was convicted].”

But in today’s decision, the Court concluded that “[t]his case is not like Tillery” since it was “not an instance of overwhelming, direct evidence” of guilt. The State’s case was circumstantial, and the improperly obtained inculpatory statements showed defendant to be a liar, which had a devastating effect on his credibility before the jury. “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,” Justice Solomon said.

The Appellate Division had upheld defendants’ trial convictions. The Supreme Court reversed that ruling. “We conclude therefore that only a new trial, one untainted by defendant’s unlawfully obtained admissions, can rectify the detectives’ failure to honor defendant’s Miranda rights.” Accordingly, the matter was remanded for that new trial.

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