In a victory for the rights of crime victims over those of defendants, New Jersey's highest court held Monday that a trial judge is under no duty to honor a defendant's waiver of appearance at his sentencing hearing.
The state Supreme Court said trial judges have ultimate authority to decide whether to allow a waiver after balancing the interests of all interested persons, including victims and their families.
"A solemn sentencing proceeding, with all parties present, not only furthers the actual administration of justice, it also fosters the appearance of dispensing justice," Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote for the unanimous court in State v. Tedesco, A-50-12.
Rabner said that the rule allowing a defendant not to be present at trial, R. 3:16(b), does not apply to sentencing, and that the rule allowing waiver of appearance at sentencing, R. 3:21-4(b), does not give defendants unilateral power to decide if they will appear.
In considering a waiver request, judges should take into account the seriousness of the offense, the victim's interest in having the defendant present, special circumstances such as the defendant's health, and concerns about public accountability, deterrence, and the administration and integrity of the justice system, Rabner said.
Further, the defendant has the burden to present specific reasons why his request should be honored — and in this case, Giuseppe Tedesco's reasons were "not special or persuasive."
Tedesco, 27, of Hopatcong, was convicted on Jan. 10 of first-degree murder of Alyssa Ruggieri, 22, after she rejected his romantic advances. Tedesco claimed self-defense, testifying that he and Ruggieri fell down a flight of stairs at her home while they struggled for his gun, causing it to go off.
During the trial, there had been verbal confrontations between Tedesco and members of Ruggieri's family.
Tedesco waived presence at his sentencing, but Sussex County Superior Court Judge N. Peter Conforti refused to honor the request. The Appellate Division affirmed, stating, "defendant may not use the waiver process to diminish in any way the victim's well-recognized right to meaningfully participate in the criminal justice system."
The Crime Victims' Bill of Rights, N.J.S.A. 52:4B-34 et seq., and the Victims' Rights Amendment to the state Constitution, art. I, ¶ 22, mandate that victims be treated with courtesy and respect, and be allowed to participate in the legal process.
"There can be little doubt that from the standpoint of the victims, who are to be treated with fairness, compassion, respect, and dignity, their statements at sentencing will carry more meaning if they are heard not only by the judge but the defendant as well," Rabner said.
Rabner recognized that a defendant forced to appear could become disruptive but suggested measures to enforce control. A judge could call recesses until order is restored, threaten the defendant with sanctions or, as a last resort, move him to an adjacent holding facility.
The Sussex County prosecutor had suggested that a defendant could be shackled and gagged, but Rabner said that should be avoided. "To ask victims to speak over a defendant who is bent on disrupting their words would rob the hearing of the very dignity and respect the victims are due," he said.
"In the end, if there is no possible way to restore order and contain a defendant's insistent, defiant behavior, a judge can direct that the defendant be taken to a holding cell outfitted with a video or audio feed that will relay the proceedings to the defendant remotely," he said.
Tedesco's attorney, Anthony Iacullo of Iacullo Martino in Nutley, says he is pleased that the court laid out a process — short of gagging or binding — for dealing with disruptive defendants.
That sentiment is echoed by Alexander Shalom, counsel for the amicus American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. "We're pleased the court made it clear that courts should not transform the event into a shaming proceeding," he says. "That's not part of the criminal justice process."
Jeffrey Mandel, who appeared for the amicus Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey, says the court became one of the first in the country to address the issue and provided a detailed rationale. "It's hard to argue with the court's reasoning," says Mandel, of Cutolo Mandel in Manalapan.
First Assistant Sussex County Prosecutor Gregory Mueller calls the ruling "an important decision for victims' rights."