HACKENSACK, N.J. -- New Jersey's highest court overturned an undocumented day laborer's conviction of sexually assaulting three women on the streets of Dumont and Englewood -- in part because prosecutors revealed during his trial that he was in the country illegally.
The judge in the case also should have instructed jurors on how to consider testimony from the one eyewitness who prosecutors put on the stand during the fall 2013 trial of Alexis Sanchez-Medina.
Taken together, both flaws prevented the Honduran immigrant from getting fair trial and "raise serious questions about whether the outcome was just," particularly given that the evidence "was not overwhelming," Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote.
"Only in a rare case will it be appropriate for a prosecutor to elicit testimony about a defendant's immigration status," the chief justice wrote in the court's unanimous decision.
Such information could taint a jury "because of the inflammatory nature of the issue," he added.
Sanchez-Medina, a Honduran immigrant who insisted he wasn't involved in the summer 2012 attacks, has served nearly half of a mandatory six years in state prison before being eligible for parole. The maximum term is eight years.
Jurors needed a little over six hours, including lunch, to find him guilty of sexual assault, criminal sexual contact and four other counts following a one-week trial in November 2013.
They acquitted him, however, of two major charges of second-degree attempted sexual assault and attempted sexual penetration.
Testifying in his own behalf, Sanchez-Medina told them that authorities got the wrong man, and that he confessed after being picked up the night of the spree only so he could go to work.
Public defender Gail Hargrove noted that Dumont police issued an alert for a suspect with “an identical description” as the one used to arrest her client.
A young Englewood mother testified during the trial that she was walking in town with her 3-year-old son one night when she saw Sanchez-Medina sitting with other men outside a flower shop.
He got on a bicycle and “circled” her, blowing kisses and speaking in Spanish, she said.
He had “distinctive” features,the woman said, including curly hair, a pony tail and a particular shape to his eyes.
As he rode by, she told jurors, he smacked her and grabbed her buttocks.
The frightened woman said she told her little boy: “Whatever happens, just run.”
Coming around for another pass, Sanchez-Medina knocked her down before taking off on the bicycle, the woman said.
She told jurors she later saw a TV report about women being attacked, so she contacted police. Then she picked Sanchez-Medina from a photo lineup.
“I saw in my mind what he looked like, the man who attacked me,” she testified.
The man in the photo didn’t have a ponytail, she said, but she told police: “That’s him. I am 100% sure.”
Another Englewood woman testified that she noticed someone had moved the accordion panels on the air conditioner of her ground-level apartment. When she looked out the window,” she said, she saw “someone with curly hair and a pony tail.”
The next night, the woman told jurors, she went to investigate. That’s when someone grabbed her from behind, forced her to the ground and put his hand down her pants, touching her genitals, she said.
The final attack, fitting a pattern of escalating seriousness, was in Dumont, where a woman said she was taking out her garbage at night when she was attacked by a man who put his fingers inside her before running into the shadows.
Hargrove emphasized at the time that the victims “made their complaints honestly” but identified different-looking assailants. One described a light-skinned person, for example, while another said he was dark-skinned, she said.
“And that makes a difference,” the defense attorney said.
“He was in Dumont riding his bike because he was there to run, on a field where he played football,” Hargrove told jurors. “What he told you is what happened – and consistent with what the police said — except for the fact the police consider this to be a confession.
“I say this isn’t a confession.”
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