The state Supreme Court said today that crime suspects have the right to confront the witnesses testifying against them.
A Salem County man convicted of killing his elderly neighbor will get a new trial, the state Supreme Court ruled today, because his girlfriend gave police a statement that likely incriminated him but she did not take questions about it in court.
Dwayne E. Slaughter and his cousin, Pritchard Watts, both told investigators that they were at the Salem City home of Roosevelt Morrow, a 79-year-old man who ran a shop from his home, when Morrow was killed in 2005.
Slaughter, 34, blamed Watts for robbing, beating and killing Morrow. Watts, 36, laid the blame on Slaughter.
Police questioned Slaughter’s live-in girlfriend and the mother of his three children, Tanisha Day, who gave them a statement recounting a conversation she had with Slaughter on the day of Morrow’s death.
“He said he hope he didn’t kill this [person],” Day told police, according to an audio recording introduced in court. Officers then asked her what Slaughter meant. Day replied “that he had beaten somebody up.”
That statement was somewhat ambiguous but “well could have ‘tipped the scales'” against Slaughter, Judge Ariel Rodriguez wrote for the high court in a 6-0 decision. Day did not take the witness stand to clarify what she meant or take questions, so Slaughter’s constitutional right to confront the witnesses against him was violated, the Supreme Court found.
“There was no physical evidence linking (Slaughter) to the beating. The police did not match defendant’s shoes to the marks found on Morrow’s shirt, or match defendant’s DNA to the blood found at the scene,” Judge Rodriguez, who is temporarily filling a vacancy on the Supreme Court, wrote.
“Watts admitted that he had a motive to steal money and objects from Morrow, by force, if necessary, but he denied beating Morrow,” Rodriguez added.
Watts took a plea deal and received a 10-year prison sentence. Slaughter was tried by a jury and received a 20-year sentence for aggravated manslaughter and a seven-year sentence for robbery conspiracy.
Slaughter’s public defender, Robert L. Sloan, did not respond to messages seeking comment. A spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, which handled the prosecution, declined to comment on the ruling.