On January 18, in a unanimous opinion, the New Jersey Supreme Court threw out illegal alien Alexis Sanchez-Medina’s six convictions for sex crimes against four different women in the summer of 2012. Ultimately, the justices imposed this dangerous and completely unnecessary outcome on everyone in the state because they believe hearing evidence about an individual’s immigration status makes jurors incapable of rational thought.
At trial, Sanchez-Medina chose to take the stand and testify in his own defense. During cross-examination, the prosecutor asked him if he’d entered the country illegally, and over defense objection, the jury learned he had. The jury convicted him on all counts, and the trial judge sentenced him to 18 1/2 years in prison.
In response to his first appeal, the State conceded they were wrong to have asked Sanchez-Medina about his immigration status. They argued, however, the error hadn’t so clearly prejudiced him to require reversal and a new trial. A three-judge appellate court panel agreed almost completely, affirming five of his six convictions.
Reversing the lower appellate court, the New Jersey Supreme Court’s opinion starts off its entire analysis on the wrong foot by saying Sanchez-Medina being in the country illegally isn’t by itself proof he committed the crimes. Of course it isn’t. It is, however, an indication of his dishonesty and lack of credibility as a witness—credibility he chose to put at issue when he gave up his 5th Amendment rights and testified at his own trial.
Indeed, New Jersey’s own Rule of Evidence 607 says that “any party … may examine the witness and introduce extrinsic evidence relevant to the issue of credibility.” As soon as he took the stand, the State was absolutely right to ask him about his continuing dishonesty in violating immigration law, so that the jury could consider it.
Much worse even than that, however, is the court’s sweeping condemnation of immigration evidence in general, and of nearly ever allowing juries to consider it at all. From high atop their soapbox, the court pontificates that “[b]oth today and in late 2013 when this trial took place, evidence of a defendant’s undocumented immigration status could appeal to prejudice, inflame certain jurors, and distract them from their proper role in the justice system: to evaluate relevant evidence fairly and objectively.”
The opinion makes all too clear that the justices think hearing about a defendant’s immigration status renders all jurors incapable of making a fair judgment on the merits of the case. Thus, the only solution is for the court system to hide such dangerous knowledge from the mere citizens who make up our juries: “[i]n most cases, the immigration status of a witness or party is simply irrelevant, and a jury should not learn about it.”
This will allow future illegal alien defendants in New Jersey get to have their cake and eat it too: to take the stand and testify without the State being allowed to fully cross-examine them, and without a jury being allowed to consider evidence that clearly calls their honesty and credibility into question. New Jersey juries get to have the wool pulled over their eyes. The State gets to decide whether to re-try a six-year-old case with an arm tied behind their backs. And the victims get to suffer either the trauma of a second trial, or the injustice of the charges being dismissed.
All because the New Jersey Supreme Court thinks mentioning immigration makes juries into unthinking bigoted mobs.