State v. Garcia, 245 N.J. 412 (2021)
In State v. Garcia, the defendant faced trial after an altercation in which the victim claimed that defendant slashed him with a box cutter unprovoked. Conversely, the defendant argued that he was acting in self-defense after the victim had struck him with a glass bottle. At the scene of the assault, members of the defendant’s family attempted to speak with the responding officers about defendant’s self-defense. Those attempts were rebuffed.
At trial, the investigating detective testified that nobody from defendant’s family ever attempted to speak with the officers on scene. In response, defense counsel sought to introduce a cellphone video that showed members of defendant’s family attempting to speak with police at the scene. When presented with evidence indicating defendant may have acted in self-defense, the officers told the family members that that information was “for court... not for now.” Ironically, the very evidence that officers told them to bring to court was not allowed into evidence and the jury never got to see it.
Making matters worse, the prosecutor exploited the erroneous exclusion of the video by reinforcing to the jury during his summation that none of defendant’s family members attempted to speak to the officers on scene, and that if they had actually seen defendant act in self-defense, they would have surely done so. Ultimately, the defendant was convicted of aggravated assault and related weapons offenses by the jury.
On appeal, the Appellate Division agreed that it was error to preclude the cellphone video from evidence, but held that any error was harmless because the video did not depict the actual assault and was not compelling evidence for the defense. Thus, defendant’s convictions were affirmed. The Appellate Division failed to consider, however, the impact that the video would have had on the detective’s credibility and the success of defendant’s affirmative defense.
On behalf of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey (ACDL-NJ), Pashman Stein Walder Hayden attorneys C.J. Griffin and Dillon McGuire filed an amicus curiae brief with the New Jersey Supreme Court on the issue of the admissibility of the cellphone video that directly rebutted the testimony of the investigating detective, and the misconduct of the Assistant Prosecutor in exploiting the inadmissibility of the video by making arguments that were directly contradicted by the video itself. Counsel also argued that the cumulative effect of those trial errors were sufficiently egregious to deprive defendant a fair trial and require a remand for a new trial.
The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed and reversed the defendant's conviction.