A New Jersey appellate court recently reversed a woman’s 2013 conviction for vehicular homicide. The court concluded that the Somerset County Superior Court erred in not allowing into evidence a note from the defendant’s husband stating that he, not she, was the driver in the 2010 crash that killed a 22-year-old man. The court remanded the case for a new trial.
A 43-year-old woman was sentenced to seven years in prison in May 2014. The collision occurred on Route 78 in Warren Township. Her 2011 BMW struck the man’s 1998 Subaru as the two traveled eastbound. The impact of the crash sent the man’s car spinning across a mound of grass and into a tree, killing him. A chemical test indicated that the woman’s BAC was .087 — just above the legal limit.
In March 2013, a jury rejected the woman’s claim that it had been her husband behind the wheel and found her guilty of second-degree homicide. Upon the realization that she was going to prison, the woman screamed out loud in the courtroom. “Oh my God!” She put her head in her hands and sobbed. “Oh my God!” She turned to the victim’s family to plead one final time: “I didn’t drive the car,” she cried. “I promise you. I didn’t.”
The woman appealed her conviction, arguing the judge failed to enter into evidence a note by her husband, admitting he was the driver. She further argued that she should have been able to introduce testimony that it was her habit to never drive in the left lane of a three-lane highway or to exceed the speed limit. Next, she argued that the prosecutor improperly used evidence of specific instances of conduct to prove a character trait of the woman in direct violation of New Jersey Rules of Evidence 608(a) and 405(a). Finally, she argued that even if one of these errors was insufficient to warrant reversal, their cumulative effect was to deny her due process and a fair trial.
The appeals court first agreed with the trial court that the note subjected the husband to criminal liability and therefore fell under the hearsay exception set forth in Rule 803(c)(25). The court disagreed, however, with the trial court’s finding that the defendant failed to demonstrate the authenticity of the note in part because the defendant did not produce a handwriting expert, known examples of the husband’s handwriting, signatures of the husband from reliable sources, or other means to support the assertion that the note was authentic and trustworthy. Contrary to the trial court’s finding, the appeals court held, the defendant was not required to submit corroborating evidence or a handwriting expert to support her direct testimony that she observed the husband write and sign the note in her presence. This testimony, the court reasoned, was sufficient to satisfy the defendant’s burden of making a prima facie showing of authenticity under Rule 901.
The trial court’s erroneous evidentiary ruling, the appeals court concluded, kept the jury from the only tangible, corroborative evidence the defendant had concerning her claim that the husband was driving the car on the night of the accident and was therefore responsible for causing the victim’s death. The note harmed the defendant’s defense because if it were found to be authentic, it would have strongly supported the defendant’s testimony that she initially lied to the police to keep her husband from being arrested for another DWI. The appeals court concluded that since the note clearly went to the ultimate issue of whether the defendant was driving the BMW, the judge’s error was clearly capable of producing an unjust result. Thus, the court held that reversal was necessary.
The appeals court then briefly addressed the defendant’s remaining claims. The court agreed with her argument that the trial judge mistakenly exercised his discretion by preventing her from presenting evidence concerning her driving habits to support her claim that she was not driving the BMW at the time of the accident in accordance with Rule 406(a). Regarding her claim that the prosecutor improperly referred to evidence of specific instances of conduct by the defendant that were not the subject of a conviction to attempt to prove a character trait, the court held that since it was remanding the matter, the defendant would have the opportunity to raise a timely objection should it arise in a new trial or another proceeding. Finally, the court held that the final claim regarding the cumulative impact of the errors was moot because reversal had already been granted.
If you have been charged with a DUI offense in Illinois, it is crucial to speak to an experienced Illinois DUI lawyer as soon as possible. Harvatin Law Offices, PC provides knowledgeable representation to people in Springfield and throughout Illinois. We have considerable experience defending individuals charged with DUI offenses and representing drivers with revoked licenses before the Illinois Secretary of State. To learn more, and to set up a free initial consultation, contact us online or call us at 217.525.0520.
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