State v. Hannah

The New Jersey Supreme Court reviewed a serial collateral attack on the defendant’s homicide convictions. He claimed his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to utilize certain exculpatory evidence to further a third-party-guilt defense. The case was a murder robbery where two “buyers” arranged a sale of heroin from two sellers, but the buyers intended to rob the sellers of their drugs at gunpoint. The attempted robbery devolved into a double murder, with both sellers shot dead in their car. The prosecution’s case hinged on the co-defendant, who gave three statements to detectives. In the first two, he claimed he committed the killings. In his third statement, he changed his tune and implicated the defendant. But the defendant alleged that a third person committed the crimes. The defendant’s attorney chose not to call a detective who would have testified that the third person’s pager number was on a piece of paper in one of the seller’s pockets and that the cooperating co-defendant left a message of the third party’s pager the following day asking to speak with him. Based on N.J.R.E. 803(b)(5), the trial court excluded as hearsay a copious amount of testimony from the third party’s mother, who heard her son make copious amounts of statements about the crimes and his desire to frame the defendant. Defendant counsel never argued that the statements should be admissible as a statement against interest under N.J.R.E. 803(c)(25). The defendant already had numerous PCR petitions, evidentiary hearings, and appeals. The Supreme Court here issued an opinion well worth a read. Two things stand out. First, the Court went to great pains to find a reason to review the case. It held that the defendant’s prior counsels were ineffective and that the defendant never had a fair and full opportunity to present a third-party-guilty defense. Second, the Court gave a thorough explanation of the statement-against-interest hearsay exception. The Court vacated his conviction.

Hannah