Elizabeth, New Jersey – On April 14, 2020, the Supreme Court of New Jersey remanded the case of State v. Raquel Ramirez and State v. Jorge Orozco, affirming the Appellate Court’s finding of reversible error in the deficient jury instructions on accomplice liability for the failure to prevent the commission of an offense when under the legal duty to do so under N.J.S.A. 2C:2-6(c)(1)(c).
The defendants in this case, Raquel Ramirez and Jorge Orozco, were charged with murder and endangering the welfare of a child in connection to the death of their two-year-old daughter, Diana Orozco. Ms. Ramirez and Mr. Orozco were tried jointly for failing to prevent the extensive injuries including bruises, bites, and gashes, and blunt force trauma that was determined to have caused their daughter’s death.
Having been instructed on accomplice liability under N.J.S.A. 2C:2-6(c)(1)(c), the trial court derived its jury charge directly from State v. Bass, 221 N.J. Super. 466 (App. Div. 1987), the only existing precedent on accomplice liability for murder in which the Appellate Court approved a challenged instruction on accomplice liability for murder under N.J.S.A. 2C:2-6(c)(1)(c). The jury charge resulted in both defendants being acquitted of murder but convicted of a lesser offense. Mr. Orozco was convicted of first-degree aggravated manslaughter and Ms. Ramirez was convicted of second-degree reckless manslaughter. The jury charge also resulted in both defendants being convicted of second-degree endangering the welfare of a child.
On appeal, the Appellate Division found reversible error in how the trial court instructed the jury on accomplice liability under N.J.S.A. 2C:2-6(c)(1)(c) and vacated both the manslaughter convictions and endangering convictions of Ms. Ramirez and Mr. Orozco.
In its review, the Court affirmed as to the defendants’ respective manslaughter convictions, citing that the jury should have been instructed that culpability under N.J.S.A. 2C:2-6(c)(1)(c) requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the conscious object of a defendant’s failure to prevent the commission of a particular crime was to promote or facilitate the crime under 462 N.J. Super. 1, at 25-26 (App. Div. 2019). Because the trial court failed to explain this to the jury, the Court determined that the deficient jury instruction was capable of confusing the jury and producing as unjust result, requiring reversal.
In addition to remanding the case of State v. Raquel Ramirez and State v. Jorge Orozco for a new trial as to the defendants’ respective manslaughter convictions, the Court requested that the Committee on Model Criminal Jury Charges draft a model charge as additional guidance to trial courts for future applicable cases in connection with accomplice liability under N.J.S.A. 2C:2-6(c)(1)(c) when two parents owe a legal duty to protect their child from harm as the current model charge only includes instructions for accomplice liability related to N.J.S.A. 2C:2-6(c)(1)(a) and (b).
The Court subsequently reversed as to the defendants’ convictions for endangering the welfare of a child, citing the demarcation between the offenses, and finding no ground for determining that the charge was influenced by the accomplice liability charge. As such, the defendants’ convictions for endangering the welfare of a child were reinstated by the Court.
Justice Albin was the only justice to file a separate concurrence with the decision. He concurred with the defendants’ respective manslaughter convictions and reinstated endangering convictions but cited that accomplice liability should not play a role in the retrial of the defendants’ respective manslaughter convictions because both Ms. Ramirez and Mr. Orozco had an affirmative obligation to protect the child from physical abuse inflicted on the child by the other parent under N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21(c). Because both defendants failed to prevent the child from being physically abused, he writes that both Ms. Ramirez and Mr. Orozco can be charged as principals and not accomplices for their alleged recklessness in causing Diana Orozco’s death under the manslaughter statute.
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