In criminal matters, the State is tasked with proving a defendant’s guilt. A defendant, conversely, does not bear any burden of proof and is not required to offer any evidence. In some instances, though, a defendant may wish to assert an affirmative defense in order to avoid a conviction. The affirmative defense of third-party guilt was the topic of a recent New Jersey opinion in a case in which the defendant appealed his convictions for numerous crimes arising out of the theft of a vehicle. If you are accused of theft or any other crime, it is wise to confer with a New Jersey criminal defense attorney to evaluate your possible defenses.

The Alleged Crime

It is reported that a man stole a blue SUV in March 2017 and then picked up the defendant and another individual. A police officer recognized the SUV on the highway and began following it. A high-speed chase ensued, and the SUV ultimately careened out of control and spun into a pole. The driver died on the scene. The defendant was charged with multiple crimes, including aggravated manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter, and receiving stolen property.

Allegedly, throughout the trial, the prosecution referred to the deceased man as the carjacker but indicated that the defendant was driving at the time of the crash and that if he had pulled over, the deceased man would have lived. The defendant was convicted as charged and appealed, arguing in part that the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury regarding third-party guilt.

Third-Party Guilt in New Jersey Criminal Matters

In New Jersey, third-party guilt is an affirmative defense through which a defendant attempts to implicate a link between the evidence and the crime or victim. In the subject case, as the defendant did not request a jury charge on third-party guilt during his trial, the court considered his argument under the plain error standard.

Absent a request for a jury charge, a trial court only has a duty to offer a charge when it is clearly appropriate. Additionally, an error in failing to offer a charge must be considered in light of the strength of the State’s case overall.  The appellate court explained that New Jersey’s criminal model charges explain that the defense of third-party guilt applies when there is evidence presented that indicates someone other than the defendant may have committed the alleged crime and that the evidence raises reasonable doubt regarding the defendant’s guilt.

In the subject case, the trial court instructed the jury that the State bore the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt, and the jurors must consider whether the State had established beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime. Thus, the charge was deemed sufficiently similar to a third-party guilt charge, and the court found that reversal was not warranted under the plain error standard.

Meet with a Trusted Criminal Defense Attorney

In many criminal matters, defendants can assert affirmative defenses in an attempt to avoid a conviction. If you are charged with theft by deception or another theft crime in New Jersey, it is prudent to speak to an attorney as soon as possible regarding your rights. The trusted criminal defense attorneys of The Law Offices of Jonathan F. Marshall, can inform you of your available defenses and fight to help you pursue the best legal outcome available in your case. You can contact us via our form online or at 877-450-8301 to schedule a meeting.