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Changes to the rules of evidence may benefit defendants

The New Jersey rules of evidence, like the federal rules, were designed to govern how forms of proof are offered at trial. Under the federal rules of evidence, for example, a prosecutor cannot introduce evidence of a past crime for fear it may prejudice the jury. This can be particularly important in cases involving violent crimes such as domestic violence charges and aggravated assault where a prior conviction could be the nail in the coffin for the defendant.

The concern among jurists is that introducing evidence of prior crimes such as an assault charge in a domestic case or a weapons charge in a gun case will prejudice the jury, and they will end up convicting the defendant for his past acts rather than the present crime. While this is a long-standing federal rule, under the New Jersey rules of evidence it is up to the judge to decide if such information is admissible. But a new proposal may change that.

The new proposal is currently under consideration by the state Supreme Court. According to this proposal, prosecutors could not use a defendant's conviction for a past criminal act against them. A panel of legal experts appointed by the court put the proposal together after the court appointed them to study the issue. If it passes, New Jersey prosecutors will not be able to question the credibility of a defendant with convictions that are over10 years old.

While the justices have several months to make a decision on the proposal, if the new rules are implemented they could have a tremendous effect on criminal defense in the state of New Jersey. While some detractors scoff at the changes, these rules are not meant to keep criminals on the street, they are meant to keep innocent men out of prison. It seems that people forget, but in the United States a defendant is innocent until they are proven guilty.

Source:, "N.J. Supreme Court weighs new protection for defendants with criminal histories," Salvador Rizzo, April 9, 2013

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