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Withheld Evidence Spurs Detention Rethink In NJ Murder Case

By Emma Cueto | December 16, 2018, 8:02 PM EST

After Shaquan Hyppolite was accused of murder, a judge ordered him to be detained while he waited on an indictment. There was just one problem: the prosecution hadn't told Hyppolite or his defense attorney about evidence that contradicted the story of the only witness against him.

In a ruling last week, the New Jersey Supreme Court said that under the state's new bail reform law, that was enough to reopen the detention hearing and reconsider the issue.

In a decision issued Tuesday, the high court said that even though the state's Criminal Justice Reform Act, which went into effect in January 2017, did not specifically address what to do if prosecutors failed to turn over evidence before a detention hearing, it "aligns with the goals of the CJRA and related court rules" to give criminal defendants a low bar to clear in order to prove the decision should be reconsidered.

"Whether rich or poor, all criminal defendants are entitled to a fundamentally fair detention hearing," said Mary J. Ciancimino, a deputy public defender who worked on the case. "The court's decision [Tuesday] ensures just that."

Hyppolite was arrested in 2017 and accused of shooting Terrel Smith to death, according to the decision. There was a single witness in the case, who made inconsistent statements to the police: an initial statement in which he said he did not see the shooter, and a later statement in which he said he saw Hyppolite and Smith talking just before he heard the gunshots that killed Smith, the decision said.

However, Hudson County prosecutors did not disclose the discrepancy before Hyppolite's detention hearing, according to the decision. Neither did they tell his attorneys that two of the other men the witness claimed were with Hyppolite that day had also been interviewed by police and contradicted the witness's story, including one who said he was in jail at the time of the shooting.

That information didn't come out until a grand jury indicted Hyppolite two months later, according to the decision.

Hyppolite's attorneys argued that because the information was withheld, the court should reconsider whether Hyppolite should be behind bars while awaiting trial, the decision said.

The trial court disagreed, however, saying that Hyppolite's attorneys hadn't been able to show they probably would have succeeded in reversing the decision and that the hearing should not be reopened, according to the decision.

The state Supreme Court, however, said on Tuesday that the standard that lower court had used was too high. Instead of proving that it was reasonably probable that they would succeed in a new hearing, defendants should only have to prove it was reasonably possible, the court said.

Moreover, the burden of proof would be on the state, meaning prosecutors must prove that a new hearing should not be held.

However, the court refused to go so far as granting an automatic rehearing or to say that defendants should automatically be released as a deterrent for prosecutorial misconduct.

"To require a new detention hearing each time the prosecution does not disclose all exculpatory evidence would serve only to punish or deter the state in some instances, not to enhance fairness or satisfy due process," the court said. It also noted that granting automatic release in cases where prosecutors withheld information was not in the interest of public safety.

The New Jersey Attorney General's Office, which had filed an amicus or "friend of the court" brief in the case, told Law360 that it counts that aspect of the decision as a win.

"The Supreme Court agreed with the position of the Hudson County prosecutor and the attorney general that release is not an appropriate remedy for a discovery violation at a detention hearing," Sarah H. Hunt, a deputy attorney general, said in a statement. "The modified materiality standard adopted by the court safeguards the interests of the defendant, the state and the public and provides for the reopening of detention hearings where appropriate."

Hudson County prosecutors did not respond to a request for comment.

However, the court also ruled that if prosecutors deliberately withheld evidence, it would be appropriate for the court to report them to the state's ethics board, which Ciancimino said was a win for criminal defendants.

"If a prosecutor violates this rule again, not only is a defendant entitled to a new detention hearing, but that prosecutor could also be held to answer to the Office of Attorney Ethics," she said.

As for Hyppolite, he remains in custody after his trial in October resulted in a hung jury. After over a year behind bars, the Supreme Court ruling means he will have another shot at awaiting trial outside jail.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

--Editing by Brian Baresch.