State v. Howard-French

The defendant alleged the trial court made several evidentiary errors during his trial for the murder of a twenty-three-month-old infant. The New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed the conviction. The defendant made claims about the trial judge’s admission of: prior bad acts; the opinion testimony of a doctor; the non-sanitized statement by a detective accusing the defendant of lying; and a doctor’s testimony regarding the cause of death. The Court evaluated each argument under a plain error standard because the defendant did not object before the trial judge to the admission of the evidence. First, the Court ruled the trial judge correctly performed the four-pronged test established in State v. Cofield, 127 N.J. 328 (1992), and determined a video was admissible to show the defendant was lying when he claimed the infant fell down a flight of stairs. Second, the defendant argued that a doctor’s testimony was speculation and not based on reasonable medical certainty. The Court found that the doctor testified as a fact witness. Therefore, her testimony did not have to be based on a reasonable degree of medical certainty. Third, the defendant alleged there was plain error by the trial judge’s failure to sanitize portions of a recorded statement where a detective told the defendant that he did not believe the defendant’s story. The Court held that the detective’s questioning of the veracity of the defendant’s account of what occurred was a legitimate exercise of police authority, and allowing the jury to hear it provided context to the interrogation. Lastly, the defendant argued that a doctor failed to opine with a reasonable degree of medical certainty that the manner of the death was a homicide. The Court ruled that when taken as a whole, the doctor’s testimony reflected the requisite degree of certainty, despite not stating the magic words that her opinion was within a reasonable degree of medical certainty.

Howard-French