A judge need not give an accomplice-liability charge in a multiple-defendant case if it is not grounded in a rational basis in the trial evidence, the New Jersey Supreme Court says.
The justices, in State v. Maloney, affirmed an armed-robbery conviction and the judge’s rejection of the defense request to charge the jury on lesser-included offenses of attempted theft by receiving stolen property and conspiracy to receive stolen property.
None of the evidence backed a jury finding that the defendant “was liable as an accomplice rather than a principal,” the court held in a 6-1 vote.
Prosecutors alleged that Osborne Maloney had been the principal actor in a robbery in which he shot Sam Shnayder in the abdomen.
Igor Chichelnitsky planned the crime after having his offer to supply goods to Shnayder’s grocery stores turned down, according to the prosecution.
Chichelnitsky allegedly recruited Maloney, Nathan Jakubov and Juan Rodriguez to carry out the robbery.
Maloney and Rodriguez entered the Shnayder home wearing masks and carrying handguns.
Rodriguez left on foot, carrying $7,000 and two expensive watches. Maloney and Jakubov left by car. All four men were arrested a short time later.
Maloney claimed he was not at the scene of the crime, although he admitted receiving property stolen from the victim’s home.
He was charged with attempted murder, conspiracy to commit robbery, burglary, weapons offenses and offenses stemming from the robbery.
At trial, Maloney’s attorney requested a jury instruction on attempted theft by receiving stolen property and on conspiracy to commit theft, both as lesser-included offenses of robbery.
Middlesex County Judge Dennis Nieves denied the request.
Maloney’s lawyer did not request an accomplice-liability instruction or object to the final jury charge.
The jury found Maloney guilty of crimes that included second-degree conspiracy to commit armed robbery and second-degree conspiracy to commit burglary.
The Appellate Division rejected Maloney’s argument that the judge’s failure to instruct the jury sua sponte was reversible error.
It also affirmed Nieves’ refusal to instruct the jury on the two lesser-included offenses, finding they were not related offenses and the judge had no duty to charge them.
Maloney raised the same issues before the Supreme Court.
But the justices said that “when the state’s theory of the case only accuses the defendant of being a principal, and defendant argues he was not involved in the crime at all, then the judge is not obligated to instruct on accomplice liability.”
Even if the defendant requested an accomplice-liability instruction, it would not have been warranted “because it was not grounded in a rational basis in the trial evidence,” Judge Ariel Rodriguez, temporarily assigned, wrote for the court.
In addition, Maloney’s request for a jury charge on attempted theft by receiving stolen property and conspiracy to receiving stolen property were properly denied because their statutory elements do not overlap, the court said.
Robbery is a crime against a person, while the charges proposed as lesser offenses are property crimes, the court said.
Justice Barry Albin based his dissent on the denial of the charge on lesser-included offenses.
He acknowledged that the lesser charges sought by Maloney were not lesser-included offenses.
But he said they were clearly related offenses to robbery and were wrongly denied, leaving the jury with an “all-or-nothing outcome.”
As a result, “if the jury believed Maloney, it was left with the bleak option of completely acquitting him even though he admitted to commiting the crime of attempted theft,” Albin said.
Assistant Middlesex County Prosecutor Joie Piderit, who represented the state on appeal, says Maloney’s assertion that he wasn’t present at the robbery was key to the Supreme Court’s analysis.
The jury had to decide whether he was the principal or innocent of all charges, with no room for middle ground, she adds.
Stephen Kirsch, the assistant deputy public defender who represented Maloney on appeal, did not return a call.
The denial of lesser-included or related offenses was “a mistake,” says Edward Crisonino, a Westmont criminal defense solo.
“There are a lot of cases in New Jersey which say lesser-included or related offenses should almost always be given if they’re requested,” he says.