State v. Gideon, 011421 NJSC, A-31-19

Docket NºA-31-19
Opinion JudgeSOLOMON JUSTICE
Party NameState of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Donnell Gideon, Defendant-Respondent.
AttorneyLinda A. Shashoua, Special Deputy Attorney General/Acting Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for appellant (Jill S. Mayer, Acting Camden County Prosecutor, attorney; Linda A. Shashoua, of counsel and on the briefs). Alan Dexter Bowman argued the cause for respondent (Alan Dexter Bowman, on th...
Judge PanelSOLOMON, J., writing for the Court. CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, and PIERRE-LOUIS join in JUSTICE SOLOMON'S opinion. CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, and PIERRE-LOUIS join in JUSTICE SOLOMON'S opinion.
Case DateJanuary 14, 2021
CourtSupreme Court of New Jersey

State of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

Donnell Gideon, Defendant-Respondent.

No. A-31-19

Supreme Court of New Jersey

January 14, 2021

Argued September 14, 2020

On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

Linda A. Shashoua, Special Deputy Attorney

General/Acting Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for appellant (Jill S. Mayer, Acting Camden County Prosecutor, attorney; Linda A. Shashoua, of counsel and on the briefs).

Alan Dexter Bowman argued the cause for respondent (Alan Dexter Bowman, on the briefs).

Steven A. Yomtov, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for amicus curiae Attorney General of New Jersey (Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney; Steven A. Yomtov, of counsel and on the brief).

SOLOMON, J., writing for the Court.

In this appeal, the Court considers whether trial counsel's failure to call as alibi witnesses defendant Donnell Gideon's mother, Bianca Gideon-Nichols, and/or girlfriend, Sahleeha Bey, prejudiced Gideon's case within the meaning of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 694 (1984), warranting a new trial.

Gideon was arrested after being implicated by an eyewitness, Vincent Robinson, in a July 2004 shooting in Camden. On the day of his arrest, Gideon provided police officers with a statement. Gideon told the officers that he had fought with Tony Alford earlier on the day of the shooting, after Alford allegedly robbed individuals who sold drugs for Gideon. After the fight, Gideon walked home and, before arriving, was stopped by Alford, who was driving by. Alford told Gideon "it ain't over," which Gideon interpreted as a threat. Upon arriving home, Gideon called Eric Jackman. Jackman, Gideon, and a third man rode in Jackman's car, looking for Alford. Believing they saw him, they parked and entered an alley. Gideon then heard gunshots.

At trial in 2007, the State played the audio recording of Gideon's statement to police and offered the testimony of Robinson, who said he saw Gideon and two others wearing black and armed, standing in the alley at the time of the shooting.

Gideon testified that police "told [him] what to say" during his initial statement. In contrast to that statement, Gideon testified that, before arriving home, he saw his mother, Gideon-Nichols, who drove Gideon back to the scene of the fight to make peace with Alford and shake hands, then drove Gideon home and went to work. On cross-examination, Gideon testified for the first time that he remained home through the night with his girlfriend, Bey. Gideon-Nichols and Bey were present at Gideon's trial but did not testify. Gideon was convicted on multiple counts. Five years later, Gideon filed a petition seeking post-conviction relief (PCR), alleging ineffective assistance of counsel for failure to investigate and call Gideon-Nichols and Bey as alibi witnesses.

In a December 2012 certification in support of Gideon's petition, Gideon-Nichols attested that she drove Bey to the scene of the fight and found Gideon and Alford scratched up and bleeding; the two men then shook hands. She stated that Alford departed while Gideon-Nichols, Bey, and Gideon drove to the store to pick up food, ate together at home, and stayed with each other through the night. Bey produced a similar certification, stating that she and Gideon-Nichols drove to the scene of the fight and that the three stayed home together through the night.

The PCR court denied Gideon's petition, noting that, were Gideon-Nichols and Bey to have testified, both would have contradicted Gideon's trial testimony. The Appellate Division remanded for an evidentiary hearing. At the hearing, Gideon-Nichols and Bey testified. The PCR court found neither credible and noted that their testimony was inconsistent with Gideon's trial testimony. The PCR court nevertheless granted Gideon's petition. The State appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed and remanded for determination of whether Gideon was prejudiced by counsel's deficiencies. The PCR court concluded that he was not. The Appellate Division reversed, vacated Gideon's conviction, and remanded for a new trial, relying in large part on State v. Pierre, 223 N.J. 560 (2015). The Court granted certification. 240 N.J. 197 (2019).

HELD:

Pierre applied existing jurisprudence to a specific set of facts. At a PCR hearing, an alibi witness's false or inaccurate testimony may bear upon the witness's credibility and, while not dispositive, the claimed alibi witness's credibility must be weighed against the strength of the evidence presented at trial and offered post-conviction. Here, considering the strength of the State's case and the weakness of Gideon's alibi -- including the extent to which his proposed witnesses would have contradicted his own account of the relevant events -- the PCR court's finding that Gideon failed to demonstrate prejudice should not have been disturbed.

1. In Strickland, the United States Supreme Court set forth a standard for determining whether an attorney's inadequacy deprived a defendant of the level of assistance guaranteed by the Constitution, warranting reversal of a conviction. The Supreme Court of New Jersey Court has applied the Strickland standard to claims of ineffective assistance brought under the State Constitution. That standard has two prongs. First, the defendant must show that counsel's performance was deficient. Second, the defendant must have been prejudiced by counsel's deficient performance. Under the prejudice prong, the defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. That is an exacting standard. (pp. 14-16)

2. The Court reviews two particularly instructive cases: State v. Allegro, 193 N.J. 352 (2008), and Pierre. In Allegro, the Court found that the defendant was not prejudiced by defense counsel's failure to call proposed alibi witnesses because the content of their testimony would not have "directly or tangentially address[ed] the State's proofs" that the defendant was solely responsible for the marijuana-growing operation for which he was convicted, and because the "belatedly tendered" additional witnesses would have contradicted the trial witnesses and therefore could have been harmful to defendant at trial. 193 N.J. at 370. In Pierre, the defendant asserted an alibi defense to charges relating to an early-morning shooting in New Jersey -- he alleged that he was traveling to Florida to visit family at the time of the shooting. 223 N.J. at 567, 569-70. In support of that alibi, the defense offered both a speeding ticket issued in South Carolina several hours before the shooting and a phone bill and related testimony from the defendant's girlfriend showing that she had received a call from South Carolina not long before the shooting. Id. at 569. The Court found counsel's failure to pursue defendant's alibi defense prejudicial, particularly because the State's proofs against the defendant were limited. Id. at 584-88. (pp. 16-24)

3. Applying those principles to this case, the Court begins by considering the strength of the State's evidence. Here, in contrast to Pierre, there was more evidence against Gideon, notably his own statement to police and Robinson's testimony. And, against those stronger proofs, Gideon has offered a markedly weaker alibi defense. Unlike the defendant in Pierre, Gideon did not provide at trial, nor does he provide now, any physical evidence supporting his alibi. Rather, the proposed testimony of Gideon-Nichols and Bey constitutes Gideon's alibi. It is therefore particularly significant that their testimony would have contradicted important aspects of Gideon's trial testimony, including who he was with at the time of the shooting. Here, the PCR court found, and the Court agrees, that the testimony of either Gideon-Nichols or Bey "if anything would have increased the likelihood of conviction based upon th[e] discrepancies." In addition to those discrepancies, the PCR court noted factors that undermined Gideon-Nichols's credibility. Presenting Bey alone would still have created an inconsistency with Gideon's trial testimony, in addition to the credibility issue raised by Bey's failure to come forward in support of Gideon's alibi until roughly five years after his trial. (pp. 24-29)

4. Pierre does not suggest that failure to offer alibi testimony can be deemed prejudicial -- regardless of adverse credibility determinations -- if the testimony would have bolstered the defendant's alibi "on the fundamental point" of the defendant's whereabouts at the time of the crime. Such reasoning would require a new trial whenever a third party -- no matter how incredible -- asserts that a defendant was elsewhere at the time of a crime. The Court has never so weakened the standard for demonstrating prejudice. The prejudice prong of Strickland remains an exacting standard, and important to that analysis is the strength of the evidence before the fact-finder. On these facts, the PCR court's finding that Gideon failed to demonstrate prejudice should not have been disturbed. In reaching that conclusion, the Court defers to the PCR court's credibility determinations, which find sufficient credible support in the record. (pp. 29-30)

REVERSED. The order denying Gideon's petition is REINSTATED.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, and PIERRE-LOUIS join in JUSTICE SOLOMON'S opinion.

OPINION

SOLOMON JUSTICE

After being arrested in connection with a shooting in Camden that resulted in the death of one individual and injuries to three others, defendant Donnell Gideon implicated himself in a statement to police. At trial, Gideon recanted his statement to police...

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