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Sunday, January 21, 2018

State v. Alexis Sanchez-Medina (A-10-16) (077883)

 State v. Alexis Sanchez-Medina (A-10-16) (077883)

Argued October 10, 2017 -- Decided January 18, 2018

RABNER, C.J., writing for the Court.

         The Court considers whether defendant was denied his right to a fair trial on sexual assault charges. First,
the prosecution asked defendant whether he had come to the United States legally. Over an objection, the jury
learned that defendant had not. Second, although the allegations related to different incidents that involved four
separate victims, the case rested heavily on an identification by a single witness. Despite that, neither party
requested a jury charge on eyewitness identification, and the trial court did not instruct the jury on the subject.

         A jury convicted defendant Alexis Sanchez-Medina of various sexual-assault crimes that involved four
separate victims: R.D., D.J., A.M., and A.B.

         (1) On July 27, 2012, in Englewood, a man on a bicycle approached R.D. from behind, tried to push her,
and grabbed her buttocks. R.D. described her assailant as a Hispanic male with a ponytail. R.D. was the only
witness to identify defendant. She selected his picture out of an array of six photographs. R.D. also identified
defendant in court. (2) D.J. was inside her basement apartment in Englewood on August 9, 2012, at about 11:00
p.m., when she noticed the window air conditioner unit move. She went outside to investigate but did not see
anyone. As D.J. walked back to her apartment, someone pinned her down. The attacker reached down her pants
and inside her underwear, then got up and ran away. D.J. admitted that she did not get a good look at the attacker.
She described him as a light-skinned African American or Hispanic male who wore his curly black hair in a
ponytail. (3) At about 10:00 p.m. on August 10, 2012, A.M. was walking in Dumont. She saw a “shadow of a guy”
approach her from behind. The man grabbed both of her arms from behind and gripped them tightly. He eventually
released her and ran away. A.M. did not see her attacker’s face. She said he appeared to be about 5’3” to 5’7” in
height, had a medium build, and had short dark hair. She noted that he wore a sweatshirt and cargo pants. (4)
About twenty minutes after the prior incident, A.B. was assaulted in Dumont. A man charged at A.B. from behind,
forced her to the ground, and put his fingers up her shorts and inside her vagina. A.B. screamed and tried to push
the attacker off of her, and he ran away. A.B. never saw the man’s face. As he ran, she saw the back of his head
and his silhouette. She did not describe him other than to note that he wore dark shorts and a dark shirt.

        As part of an investigation into the attacks, the police detained defendant, who repeatedly denied any
involvement in the attacks. He also made certain admissions.

         All four victims testified at trial and relayed the above details. Defendant testified as well. He denied that
he had ever seen any of the victims or done anything to them. His defense was misidentification.

        The prosecution began its cross-examination of defendant with this question: “You’re from Honduras,
right?” After defendant said “yes,” the prosecution asked, “And you didn’t come into the United States legally?”
Defense counsel objected, and the trial judge overruled the objection. Defendant then confirmed that he had not
“come into this country legally.” The judge gave conflicting limiting instructions about that evidence. In addition,
although R.D.’s identification of defendant was central to the case, neither party asked the judge to instruct the jury
on how to evaluate the evidence. The court did not instruct the jury specifically on that point on its own.

          On appeal, the State acknowledged that the prosecution should not have elicited testimony about
defendant’s immigration status. The panel found that defendant was not prejudiced by the testimony in light of the
trial court’s limiting instructions. The Appellate Division also found that the trial court should have charged the jury
on identification. The panel, though, concluded that the omission did not constitute plain error in light of the strong
evidence that corroborated R.D.’s identification, specifically, defendant’s statement.

           The Court granted defendant’s petition for certification limited to the following issues: the admissibility of
defendant’s immigration status for impeachment purposes; and the trial court’s failure to instruct the jury on
228 N.J. 57 (2016).

HELD: The cumulative effect of both errors denied defendant his right to a fair trial.

1. The State rightly concedes that it was improper to question defendant about his immigration status. As a general
rule, that type of evidence should not be presented to a jury. To be admissible at trial, evidence must be relevant.
N.J.R.E. 401. Whether a defendant entered the country legally tells a jury nothing about whether he committed an act
of sexual assault. Even if relevant, “evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the
risk of . . . undue prejudice, confusion of issues, or misleading the jury.” N.J.R.E. 403. Both today and in late 2013
when this trial took place, evidence of a defendant’s undocumented immigration status could appeal to prejudice,
inflame certain jurors, and distract them from their proper role in the justice system: to evaluate relevant evidence fairly
and objectively. A defendant’s immigration status is not proof of character or reputation that can be admitted under
Rules 404 or 608. Proof of status alone is also not evidence of a prior criminal conviction. See N.J.R.E. 609. Nor is a
person’s immigration status admissible as a prior bad act under Rule 404(b). (pp. 13-17)

2. In this case, the error was significant. The prosecution’s first questions on cross-examination focused on defendant’s
status and set the tone for what followed. To compound the error, the trial court issued conflicting instructions about
whether jurors could consider the evidence to determine whether defendant “follows the rules of society.” Without a
clear instruction to disregard the evidence entirely, we cannot be certain whether and how the jury might have relied
upon it during deliberations. (pp. 17-18)

3. The State also appropriately recognizes that the failure to instruct the jury on identification evidence was an error.
R.D.’s identification of defendant was central to this case. She was the sole witness to identify defendant, and his
defense at trial was misidentification. When eyewitness identification is a “key issue,” the trial court must instruct
the jury how to assess the evidence—even if defendant does not request the charge. State v. Cotto, 
182 N.J. 316,
325 (2005). The jury in this case should have been instructed about some of the factors discussed in State v.
208 N.J. 208 (2011). At a charge conference, the parties and the court should have considered whether
charges on memory decay, confidence, stress, duration, lighting, and other factors were warranted. To be sure, the
judge should have given the charge on his own because R.D.’s identification was a “key issue.” But counsel for the
State and the defense are very much a part of the trial process as well. It is imperative that both sides carefully
evaluate and propose relevant jury instructions before and during trial, rather than after a verdict. (pp. 18-21)

4. Defendant’s convictions rest largely on the testimony of four victims, only one of whom could identify him. No
forensic evidence linked defendant to the crimes charged, and no other witnesses observed or could corroborate any
of the incidents. The witnesses’ descriptions of their assailants varied. In addition, although the assaults shared
some similarities, they differed from one another in key ways. The assaults were not “signature” crimes that, on
their own, suggest the same person carried out each attack. Defendant’s statement to the police, which he recanted
at trial, offers some corroboration. Yet he also denied the core of the accusations during the interview. Looking at
all of the proofs together, the evidence against defendant was not overwhelming, as the State suggests. (pp. 21-23)

5. Even if an individual error does not require reversal, the cumulative effect of a series of errors can cast doubt on a
verdict and call for a new trial. Here, the jury received no guidance about how to assess the single identification of
defendant—a critical issue at trial that defendant disputed. And the jurors were not told to ignore provocative
evidence about defendant’s immigration status. Together, those errors undermined defendant’s right to a fair trial.
They raise serious questions about whether the outcome was just, particularly in light of the strength of the evidence
presented. See R. 2:10-2. The Court therefore has no choice other than to vacate defendant’s convictions. (p. 23)