NEWARK, N.J. (CN) – Ordering a new trial on four Bergen County sexual assaults that punctuated the summer of 2012, New Jersey’s high court ruled Thursday that serious errors tainted the conviction.
Alexis Sanchez-Medina was sentenced to 18 1/2 years in prison after a jury convicted him of carrying out a series of sexual assaults that rocked Bergen County from late July 2012 to early August.
Out of four victims, only R.D. got a good look at her attacker. R.D. had heard about similar incidents on the news when told police that a man on a bicycle grabbed her buttocks on July 27, 2012, while she was walking with her 3-year-old son in Englewood. She said the man tried three times over the span of several blocks to knock her down, all the while blowing kisses at her and making comments in Spanish she was not able to follow.
After describing her attacker as a Hispanic male with a ponytail, she picked a photo of Sanchez-Medina out of a six-picture lineup.
A man with a ponytail pinned down D.J. outside of her Englewood apartment two weeks after this incident. D.J. told police the man shoved his hand down her pants and inside her underwear, touched her clitoris, smelled his hand, and ran away before she could get a good look at him.
The next two attacks occurred 20 minutes apart in nearby Dumont. A.M. said a man grabbed her from behind at about 10 p.m. on Aug. 10, 2012, but ran away when she resisted.
Later that night, A.B. was taking out the garbage when a man charged her from behind and forced her to the ground, putting his fingers up her shorts and inside her vagina. The man fled when she screamed.
Police brought Sanchez-Medina in for questioning four days later based on his partial match to descriptions of the suspect.
During a more than four-hour questioning that began close to midnight, Sanchez-Medina denied any involvement in the attacks but admitted to various altercations with women.
He described riding his bicycle in Englewood, for example, and passing by a woman whose butt he wanted to touch. Matching R.D.’s story, Sanchez-Medina said the woman had been with a child and was carrying a shopping bag.
At his trial, R.D. was the only victim who gave witness testimony. Sanchez-Medina testified as well, hinging his defense on misidentification.
Thursday’s ruling notes that prosecutors had zero physical evidence tying Sanchez-Medina to the attacks and made a grave error when they began cross-examination, letting jurors find out that he had immigrated illegally to the United States from his native Honduras in 2008.
In refusing to strike this testimony from the record, the trial court told the jury to use Sanchez-Medina's immigration status “not as proof of the underlying offenses” but as a measure of whether he follows the rules of society.
On Thursday, the New Jersey Supreme Court said this information was inadmissable and violated Sanchez-Medina’s rights to a fair trial.
“Both 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,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote for the unanimous seven-member court.
Rabner added that the significance of this error was compounded by the court’s conflicting instructions.
“Without a clear instruction to disregard the evidence entirely, we cannot be certain whether and how the jury might have relied upon it during deliberations,” Rabner wrote.
The court found that Sanchez-Medina was prejudiced as well by the court’s failure to instruct the jury on identification evidence.
“Here, the jury received no guidance about how to assess the single identification of defendant -- a critical issue at trial that defendant disputed,” Rabner wrote.
Rabner called “imperative that both sides carefully evaluate and propose relevant jury instructions before and during trial, rather than after a verdict.” “That practice helps protect defendants against unfair trials, avoids putting witnesses through the ordeal of testifying twice, and respects the jury’s time,” he continued.
A spokeswoman for the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office declined to comment on the ruling, which orders them to hold a retrial.
Tamar Lerer, the public defender who represented Sanchez-Medina, meanwhile applauded the ruling.“Our office is very gratified by the outcome today,” Lerer said in a statement. “We are glad the New Jersey Supreme Court made clear that there’s no place in our legal system to use a criminal defendant’s immigration status to prejudice a jury against him.”