Public Defender’s Office secures victory in death penalty case; New Jersey Supreme Court ruling means fundamental change in capital murder process.
In State v. Fortin, the Supreme Court ruled that New Jersey’s death penalty practice has erred by not requiring prosecutors to explain up-front everything they are going to use to try to convince a jury to sentence a person to death. Those so-called “aggravating factors” were not required to be presented to a grand jury at the indictment phase under the law as it stood when Steven R. Fortin was indicted.
“The Supreme Court is acknowledging that New Jersey’s grand jury system should be the mechanism by which a decision is made to seek the death penalty instead of vesting that power unilaterally in the hands of a prosecutor,” Public Defender Segars said. “While that is not as desirous as doing away with the death penalty, it is a move toward more fairness for the accused.
“This outcome is a testament to the hard work and persistence
of the attorneys who have handled the Fortin case for our office. Their
dedication has brought about this fundamental change in the law.”
In its opinion, written by Associate Justice Barry T. Albin and issued
this morning, the court held that “(i)n a criminal justice system
in which all of the elements of a crime must be submitted to the grand
jury it would be odd to make capital murder the one exception.”
The trial court denied Fortin a fair and impartial jury during the guilt phase by refusing “to question prospective jurors regarding the affect of hearing evidence of Fortin’s sexual assault on a Maine state trooper.” The court said the trial judge should have determined whether jurors, especially those with ties to law enforcement, could remain open-minded during a case in which such evidence was certain to be introduced.
The Supreme Court also said the trial court erred during the penalty
phase by not allowing Fortin to inform the jury that he could be sentenced
to life without parole in lieu of the death penalty.