Thursday, July 21, 2011

"America's Couple"

The New Jersey Supreme Court held that a defendant was denied effective assistance of counsel at sentencing in a case where a wife had killed her police officer husband.

The prosecutor had a rather creative presentation:

At sentencing, without objection from defense counsel, the prosecutor played a professionally produced seventeen-minute video set to popular and religious music consisting of a montage of approximately sixty still photographs of Jimmy’s life from childhood to adulthood, including a photograph of his tombstone, four homevideo clips of Jimmy, a television segment that covered his funeral, and three poems. The prosecutor’s remarks described defendant and Jimmy as “America’s couple”; detailed defendant’s financial motives and the calculated manner in which she shot her husband; emphasized the aggravating sentencing factors; and suggested that defendant’s character nullified any mitigating factors. Defense counsel’s short response stated the plea agreement “somewhat tied” his hands; did not mention any of the evidence supporting that defendant was a battered woman who feared for her life; did not argue against any aggravating factor or in favor of a mitigating factor; and asked the court to independently evaluate whether a thirty-year sentence was appropriate. The court found support for two aggravating factors and two mitigating factors; expressed that they were “at least in balance if not for the fact that the aggravating factors really do outweigh the mitigating factors”; and concluded that “this is the kind of a case where [defendant] certainly could have been sentenced to more had she gone to trial . . . and been found guilty.” On the judgment of conviction, the court wrote: “This was a negotiated plea agreement between the Prosecutor and the defendant. It appears fair and in the interests of justice, the Court is imposing the recommended sentence.”

The court majority concluded that defense counsel provided ineffective assistance at sentencing and that the issue could be raised through post-conviction relief. (Mike Frisch)

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