State v. Ramirez, State v. Orozco, Docket No. 083902
In this case, co-defendant parents were charged with murder and endangering the welfare of a child, arising out of the death of their daughter. There was no direct evidence regarding which parent inflicted the injuries that caused the child’s death, and the jury was charged on the theory of accomplice liability based upon the parent’s failure to prevent child abuse. Contrary to New Jersey law, the jury instruction indicated that one of the parents could be convicted of any of these serious crimes as an accomplice if he or she was merely aware of the abuse and did nothing to stop it.
Both defendants were acquitted of murder, but were convicted of manslaughter and endangering offenses. In a published decision, the Appellate Division vacated the defendants’ convictions and remanded for a new trial. The panel held that the trial court failed to clearly instruct the jury that accomplice liability required proof that one defendant’s failure to prevent the commission of a particular crime was intended to promote or facilitate the other defendant’s conduct. Given the existence of only circumstantial proofs, the panel found the trial court’s incorrect instruction was harmful error.
On behalf of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey (ACDL-NJ), Pashman Stein Walder Hayden attorneys Aidan P. O’Connor and Darcy Baboulis-Gyscek filed an amicus curiae brief with the New Jersey Supreme Court. The brief argued that the Supreme Court should affirm the Appellate Division’s decision because a knowing or reckless failure to intervene to prevent child abuse is insufficient under the accomplice liability statute, which requires purposeful conduct. The case was argued in late 2020 by Darcy Baboulis-Gyscek.
In April 2021, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with those arguments and issued a decision affirming the reversal of the defendants’ manslaughter convictions. The decision bears significant implications for criminal defendants involved in accomplice crimes to safeguard their constitutional right to a fair trial and will guide the drafting of new model jury charges to eventually be implemented by courts statewide.