Explain this appeals court ruling

Although I have several decades of dealing with the law I certainly have no training, knowledge or expertise when it comes to appeals to higher courts. The below linked case was pretty high profile in New Jersey. After several decades Michelle Lodzinski was charges with murdering her son. She was found guilty and sent to prison. Yesterday in a split (4-3) vote the New Jersey Supreme Court vacated the conviction claiming the jury got it wrong and there was insufficient evidence. This goes against what I have learned about the appeals process. Juries are finders of fact. They determine guilt or innocence. Appeals courts make rulings based on points of law. They look at if proper procedures were followed, if there was misconduct, if the defendant had a competent defense. In this case the court found the jury was just wrong in their verdict. It appears the dissenting justices agree with me.

Three justices dissented in Tuesday’s opinion, stating that they considered Lodzinski’s acquittal to be “unwarranted and unjust,” and that it “undermines the jury’s role at the heart of our criminal justice system.”
“If any reasonable jury could convict a defendant with the evidence viewed and inferences drawn favorably to the State, appellate judges must respect that verdict, no matter how strongly they disagree,” the dissenting justices wrote.

So what is the story? Can an appeals court make any decision? Is there any rule or law that keeps them from imposing their will on the process of determining guilt? Can this be appealed higher or would double jeopardy come into play? I’m hoping the lawyers on the board will reply.

New Jersey Supreme Court vacates murder conviction of mother who was charged in her son’s killing decades after he disappeared - CNN

The dissenters are being a bit disingenuous. The majority held that “no reasonable jury” could have found the accused guilty. The dissenters are saying “if a reasonable jury could convict” you have to accept the verdict. These statements are not in conflict, and the majority is not undermining the jury’s role, they are following the same rules the dissenters agree are valid. They just disagree with what a reasonable jury would do.

The judge in the original case had the responsibility to enter a judgement of acquittal if the evidence was insufficient to warrant a conviction. At least, that’s how I read this.

AFAIK, IANAL - an appeals court cannot overturn a jury acquittal, but they can overturn a jury conviction.

Yes, typically appeals courts look at the case and determine if an error in process has happened, or a misinterpretation of the law.

What they seem to be saying here is that the jury made a mistake - that the evidence presented was insufficient to convict. They are not saying “we believe X, not Y”. Figuring out who told the truth or interpreting contradictory evidence, what weight to assign to each, is up to the judge and/or jury who actually heard that evidence first-hand.

But as we’ve seen in a few high-profile cases the last month or two, and commentators repeat over and over what the judge also says in his charge to the jury, there are specific levels of proof of specific criteria to convict someone of a specific crime. (as an example, whether “intent” was present in some charges) So what the appeals court says here is that given the evidence provided, it would be impossible for a reasonable jury to convict. What the dissenters are essentially saying is “they heard and saw the evidence first hand instead of reading transcripts like an appeals court - and they decided the conviction was appropriate beyond reasonable doubt, and we should not be second-guessing them.”

An appeals court can either send a case back to be retried, or change the verdict. i assume if they change the verdict, they are basically saying something like “we find the court erred in allowing (or disallowing) this or that evidence. When we decide that evidence should be included (or excluded) no reasonable conviction can happen, so we reverse the verdict.”

It’s also why appeals about some evidence exclusions or improper searches etc. are heard before the trial - because once the jury says “not guilty” it’s too late to say “but we another trial and want to present more evidence”.

Sorry, didn’t read the decision in question, and my experience is exclusively w/ civil law.

But IM considerable E, an appeals court can do whatever the hell it wants to do in any particular case, subject only to the possibility that IT will be appealed/reversed. Pretty easy to characterize a factual determination as “a matter of law.” Opposite is true as well. If the appeals court wants to avoid making a tough decision, it will simply characterize an issue as factual or procedural, and remand for further proceedings.

This sounds similar to the Jordan Brown case, in which an 11-year-old was found guilty of murdering his pregnant stepmother. He spent a number of years in the pokey, but on appeal the court said that the evidence was insufficient and acquitted him. (I had the same question when I heard about it, but as noted above, the appeals court can do it.)

The case was not remanded back to the lower court. The verdict was vacated. My understanding means it now stands as an acquittal and she can not be retried.

I’m not familiar with New Jersey appellate law, but the general common law approach to criminal appeals is that there must be sufficiency of evidence to tick each of the elements related to the offence, to meet the standard of « is there sufficiency of evidence to allow a jury to convict? ».

This is considered a question of law, not fact, because it’s tied to the principle of the elements of the offence, and therefore not a case of the appeals court re-trying the case.

It’s similar to the motion for a directed verdict, where the accused tries to argue that the prosecution did not lead evidence relating to an element of the offence, and therefore the judge is required, as a question of law, to direct the jury to bring in a verdict of acquittal.

It is an appellate protection for the accused, to protect the accused from a runaway jury.

As a general proposition, a jury verdict must be supported by “substantial evidence” – sometimes defined as “evidence which reasonable minds might accept as adequate to support a conclusion”. The application of this standard leads us to say that a verdict can be overturned if “no reasonable jury” could have returned it.

I’ve generally seen it used when there is some less obvious element to the offense that the jury may have overlooked, but that there was insufficient evidence presented on (you could imagine that the government fails to introduce evidence for jurisdiction and the jury overlooks it – during my brief tenure as a state prosecutor, my final question on direct was always something like “Did the events you just testified to take place here in the County of X” because that was an embarrassing rookie way to lose a case).

Without knowing anything at all about the case (or NJ law), the fact that the trial court accepted the verdict and three of the appellate judges would have affirmed, I’m inclined to think that the majority was wrong, but that’s just my biases. Obviously the application of this standard invites the appellate court (and the trial court) to do what it wants because it’s not really objectively assessable.

Here is the decision. The medical examiner could not determine the cause of death, but testified that the manner of death was homicide without speculating whether it was negligent, reckless , purposely or knowingly. To convict someone of murder, there has to be proof that they acted knowingly or purposely. The medical examiners testimony doesn’t proof that.

There was testimony about the blanket that was found - which might be proof that the child was never at the carnival but doesn’t shed any light on whether it was an accident or reckless, etc even if Lodzinski was responsible for the child’s death. The same goes for her shifting stories - even if you view the deception as evidence of guilt, she could have been deceptive if she was negligent or reckless.

The evidence of motive was apparently that she was a single mother and had financial and social challenges.

Assuming that the court is not outright lying about the evidence presented at the trial , I agree that :

The Court finds that a rational jury considering the evidence in the light most favorable to the State could conclude that Lodzinski did not take Timothy to the carnival and that she had some involvement in his disappearance, death, and burial. But only the purposeful or knowing
causing of death constitutes murder, and the prosecution offered no direct or inferential evidence that Lodzinski purposely or knowingly caused Timothy’s death

Of course, such a verdict could be appealed higher up. However, this was the NJ Supreme Court. Agian, IANAL, but my understanding is that this is final unless there’s a constitutional challenge or some other technicality that would drag in the federal courts - but given the circumstances, i don’t see how. Given Doreen’s summary, I doubt there’s any way to drag in the constitution? And even so, in what way would it justify a new trial?

It would seem to me if NJ then tried the mother on, say negligence causing death (whatever the equivalent in NJ is) wouldn’t that be a situation of double jeopardy, trying a person twice for the same action?