“The Unique Facts of This Case” Lead the Supreme Court to Hold That the Defense Was Properly Required to Produce a Certain Affidavit in Reciprocal Discovery

State v. Knight, ___ N.J. ___ (2024). In this opinion by Justice Pierre-Louis today, a unanimous Supreme Court twice stated that the facts of this case were “unique.” That is likely correct, as the summary of those facts by Justice Pierre-Louis shows:

“Defendant Isaiah J. Knight was charged with murder. A witness to the murder gave a statement to police and identified defendant as the shooter. Thereafter, the witness met a woman online, and the woman took him to a residence in Newark. At some point after arriving at the residence and spending time with the woman in a room, three individuals, including two masked men armed with guns, entered the room. The witness stated that he was given a written affidavit and told to copy it. The affidavit recanted the witness’s original statement to law enforcement identifying defendant as the shooter. After the witness copied the recanting affidavit, the captors released him, and he then gave a statement to law enforcement regarding the ordeal. Defendant’s sister and cousin were identified as two of the perpetrators and charged with witness tampering.

The State, operating under the belief that the recantation affidavit was given to defendant’s attorney, moved to compel discovery of the affidavit from defense counsel. Defendant objected, but the trial court granted the State’s motion to compel. Defendant appealed, claiming that defense counsel cannot be compelled to turn over the affidavit pursuant to this Court’s precedent and constitutional privileges in the Fifth and Sixth Amendments. The Appellate Division disagreed and affirmed.”

The Supreme Court affirmed as well. Though the abuse of discretion standard of review applied to review of the discovery order at issue, Justice Pierre-Louis said that the Court “need not defer, however, to a discovery order that is well ‘wide of the mark,’ or ‘based on a mistaken understanding of the applicable law.’” [Citations]. We review a court rule’s meaning or scope de novo, affording no deference to the interpretative statements of the trial court and Appellate Division, unless they are persuasive in their reasoning.”

After discussing Rule 3:13-3 and its codification of of “New Jersey’s open-file approach” to reciprocal pretrial discovery, Justice Pierre-Louis dispatched each of defendant’s arguments. The Fifth Amendment argument failed because “the Fifth Amendment privilege is a purely personal one,” and “[a]s defendant is not being compelled to do anything, the Fifth Amendment is inapplicable here.” The affidavit represented “physical evidence of a crime,” so it did not trigger any protections under the Sixth Amendment.

Finally, Justice Pierre-Louis distinguished the two cases that defendant relied on. State v. Williams, 80 N.J. 472 (1979); State v. Mingo, 77 N.J. 576 (1978). “In both cases, the State tried to access materials and information created by defense counsel or at defense counsel’s direction in preparation for trial. That is simply not the case here,” where “neither party disputes that defense counsel played no role whatsoever in the genesis of [the recantation] affidavit.” The affidavit fell well within the parameters of Rules 3:13-3(b)(2)(B) and (D) as required reciprocal discovery, and since no exception applied, the Law Division and the Appellate Division correctly ruled that defense counsel was obligated to produce the affidavit.