Two Supreme Court Opinions in Criminal Cases

State v. Canfield, 252 N.J. 497 (2023). Today, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed, in large part, the 137-page opinion of the Appellate Division in this case, which was summarized here. The Court made its decision “substantially for the reasons stated in Judge Ronald Susswein’s thoughtful and thorough opinion. State v. Canfield, 470 N.J. Super. 234 (App. Div. 2022). ” The effect of the decision was to uphold the Appellate Division’s ruling that it was not plain error for the Law Division not to give the jury a lesser included offense charge sua sponte.

The Court parted company with the Appellate Division, however, in one respect. The Appellate Division had suggested the establishment of a new procedural rule: “[W]hen, in a murder prosecution, the trial court determines to instruct the jury on self-defense at the charge conference conducted pursuant to Rule 1:8-7(b), the court should also consider and make specific findings on the record as to whether to instruct the jury on the lesser-included offense of passion/provocation manslaughter, regardless of whether either party has requested that instruction.”

The Supreme Court found that unnecessary. Only three other cases in the last three decades had presented the issue involved here. Besides, the current practice of an appellate court reviewing the jury charge to see whether a lesser included offense charge was “clearly indicated” by the evidence better serves the interests of justice than requiring the trial court to make that decision at a charge conference, without the benefit of full written trial transcripts, when the evidentiary record is not yet complete. The Supreme Court said that “[b]ecause we believe the current practice correctly balances the interests of the prosecution, the defense, and the public,” the proposed new procedural rule would not be adopted.

State v. A.M. and State v. Oliver, 252 N.J. 432 (2023). Earlier this week, Chief Justice Rabner authored the Court’s unanimous opinion in these two cases. The issue was whether the Compassionate Release Act, N.J.S.A. 30:4-123.51e, which allows the release of inmates who suffer from a medical condition so severe that they are incapable of committing a crime and, in certain cases, would not pose a threat to public safety if released, permits judges to deny compassionate release in appropriate circumstances.

Based on the language of the Act, an analysis that included a lengthy discussion of when “may” (used in the Act) can mean “shall” (though the Court found that it did not mean that here), and legislative history, Chief Justice Rabner held that judges have authority to deny compassionate release. But that can occur, the Court held, only in the presence of “extraordinary aggravating factors,” a ruling that comported with the Legislature’s “goal to make greater use of compassionate release. Absent any such circumstances, petitions for relief should be granted.”

The Court proceeded to apply its analysis to the defendants, both convicted of murder, in the two cases before it. A.M.’s “offense was both serious and tragic: she killed her spouse, a beloved father to their three minor children at the time. The record, however, does not present extraordinary aggravating circumstances.” Thus, the Court affirmed and modified the Appellate Division’s ruling that granted her release.

The decision went the other way as to Oliver. He “murdered a detective in a courthouse to prevent him from testifying in a criminal case. Defendant also shot and wounded two other officers, attempted to kill a third official, and planned to kill the judge.” Because these were the sort of extraordinary aggravating circumstances that justified denial of release, the Court modified and affirmed the Law Division’s decision denying the release of Oliver.