Law Life: Defendant can't force mistrial by smacking lawyer

Pat Murphy, The Daily Record Newswire

Anthony “Naughty Tony” Montgomery expressed his dissatisfaction with the direction his carjacking trial was headed by socking his lawyer in full view of the jury.

Even though Naughty Tony’s courtroom outburst probably went a long way in convincing the jury that he was a bad guy who needed to be put away, New Jersey courts have decided it was unnecessary for the trial judge to declare a mistrial.

“We hold that a defendant cannot engage in courtroom misconduct and then expect to be rewarded with a mistrial or new trial for his or her egregious behavior,” the New Jersey Appellate Division ruled earlier this month in State v. Montgomery.

Naughty Tony certainly doesn’t shy away from drama. According to court records, on May 1, 2008, Naughty Tony led Tinton Falls police officers on a high-speed chase worthy of a Hollywood action movie. During the chase, Naughty Tony broadsided another vehicle, seriously injuring the driver.

After crashing his vehicle into a wooded area, Naughty Tony allegedly carjacked a Good Samaritan’s car. Finally cornered, Naughty Tony resisted arrest and assaulted a police officer. For good measure, he also assaulted a police dog.

At his 2010 trial in the Ocean County Courthouse in Toms River, prosecutors had a field day because most of Naughty Tony’s escapades were recorded on police cruiser cameras. With ample eyewitness testimony available to bolster the video evidence, it looked like Naughty Tony was going to prison for a long time.

With reality setting in, at the conclusion of the state’s case Naughty Tony vented his frustration by attacking his public defender, Philip Pagano. While the appeals court’s description of what occurred is rather sketchy, The Newark Star-Ledger filled in the picture by reporting that Naughty Tony turned and slapped Pagano in the face. Sheriff’s deputies intervened to protect Pagano and keep Naughty Tony from escaping the courtroom. The paper reports that Naughty Tony swung a microphone at Pagano during the scuffle.

The trial judge immediately removed the jury from the courtroom. With order restored, Pagano had the presence of mind to demand a mistrial for his client. The public defender made the argument that it was impossible for the jurors to be fair and impartial after witnessing Naughty Tony’s outburst.

The trial judge denied the motion, surmising that Naughty Tony’s actions were calculated to force a mistrial. Instead of giving Naughty Tony a do-over, the judge instructed jurors both when they returned to the courtroom and before beginning deliberations to disregard the incident and base their verdict solely on the evidence. Each juror acknowledged that they understood the instruction and would comply with it.

Of course, it was no surprise when the jury found Naughty Tony guilty of first-degree carjacking and numerous related offenses. The convicted carjacker received an extended-term sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Naughty Tony appealed, presenting squarely what turned out to be an issue of first impression for New Jersey courts.

Earlier this month, the New Jersey Appellate Division upheld Naughty Tony’s convictions, rejecting his apparent bid to manufacture a mistrial:

[W]e conclude that the defendant’s courtroom outburst was not the result of “pent-up” frustrations or stress; rather, it was a deliberate, calculated attempt to cause a mistrial. A defendant cannot engage in courtroom misconduct, especially assaulting his attorney and fighting with sheriff’s officers, and then expect to be rewarded with a mistrial or new trial for his or her egregious behavior, where, as here, the judge took appropriate cautionary measures.