A prosecutor erred by likening a man charged with robbing a bank to Jack Nicholson's violent psychopath, New Jersey's highest court ruled.
It may be the most terrifying scene in The Shining, the 1980 horror classic starring Jack Nicholson as a violent psychopath bent on killing his family to satisfy the ghouls inhabiting a haunted mountain resort.
Nicholson's character, Jack Torrance, has just used an axe to chop through a bathroom door separating him from his wife and the bloody carnage he plans to inflict on her. Leering through the opening, he utters two chilling words, the first one elongated: "Here's Johnny."
The scene has surely caused its share of nightmares. Now, in an unusual legal twist, it has won a new trial for a man convicted of robbing a bank.
On Tuesday, New Jersey's Supreme Court set aside the conviction of the man, Damon Williams, after finding that he had been deprived of a fair trial when a prosecutor likened him to a would-be axe murderer by showing a jury a still image from the "Here's Johnny" scene.
The prosecutor, the court said in a unanimous opinion, had "gone far beyond the evidence at trial to draw a parallel between defendant's conduct and that of a horror-movie villain."
Williams, 42, was convicted of stealing $4,600 from a South Jersey bank branch in 2014, state records show. He did not flash a weapon or make an explicit verbal threat, the Supreme Court noted. Instead, he handed a note to a teller.
"Please, all the money, 100, 50, 20, 10," it said. "Thank you."
The central issue at trial, the court wrote, was whether Williams' actions justified a second-degree robbery charge.
To convict him of that, the jury had to find he had used force or the threat of it to make the teller feel that physical harm was imminent, the judges wrote. The jury also had the option of convicting him of theft, a lesser crime that does not include the element of force.
At Williams' trial, the prosecutor argued that "actions speak louder than words." The robbery charge was valid, she said, because of what Williams had done before and after passing the note to the teller — even though, the Supreme Court wrote, there was no evidence that he had been violent before presenting the note or after the money was handed over.
The prosecutor hammered at the theme in her summation to the jury, including The Shining image in an accompanying slideshow under the all-caps heading "ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS."
"This guy looks creepy, and he's saying some very unthreatening words, 'Here's Johnny,' " the prosecutor said in reference to the image of Nicholson's character, which had not been shared with the defense or otherwise offered at trial before, as it was shown to jurors. "But if you have ever seen the movie The Shining, you know how his face gets through that door."
(The Supreme Court opinion explained in a footnote that the "unthreatening words" had been used to introduce the star of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson for 30 years.)
"So again, I just point that out to illustrate," the prosecutor continued in summing up her case against Williams. "It's not just the words; it's what you do before and what you do after the words that matters. And that's what makes this a robbery."
Williams' trial lawyer objected, telling the judge that what The Shining image depicted was "certainly far more than what occurred in this case."
The judge offered to essentially instruct the jury to disregard the image but noted that doing so would underscore the prosecutor's argument. Williams' lawyer agreed that "it may be best left alone," the Supreme Court wrote, and so it was. The jury convicted Williams of the more serious charge, and he was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Williams appealed the conviction, and although the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, which brought the case, eventually conceded that the image's use had been improper, it insisted that the mistake was harmless. An appeals court upheld the conviction, paving the way for the Supreme Court to take up the case and, ultimately, for its ruling Tuesday.
"Prosecutors must walk a fine line when making comparisons, whether implicit or explicit, between a defendant and an individual whom the jury associates with violence or guilt," the court said in the ruling. "The use of a sensational and provocative image in service of such a comparison, even when purportedly metaphorical, heightens the risk of an improper prejudicial effect on the jury."
The judges added: "Such a risk was borne out here."
Alison Gifford, assistant deputy public defender in New Jersey's Office of the Public Defender, said Williams and his lawyers were "very gratified" by the ruling.
"By recognising that the prosecutor's comparison of Mr. Williams to a horror-movie villain tainted the fairness of the trial," she said, "the court did the right thing in reversing Mr. Williams' conviction."
A spokesperson for the Camden County prosecutor's office declined to comment.
Written by: Ed Shanahan
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