Over 20 years from the original murder conviction, the NJ Supreme Court determined that a Union County man met the burden of proof for post-conviction relief, and will receive a new trial. The case, State of New Jersey v. Duquane Pierre, focuses on the development of an alibi defense, and whether Pierre’s original criminal defense attorney adequately developed his defense. The Court determined that defendant’s criminal defense counsel provided ineffective assistance, and therefore, Pierre’s constitutional right to legal counsel was violated.
In 1994, Pierre was arrested in connection with a drive-by shooting and robbery –killing one man, and wounding another. Pierre maintains that he was not in New Jersey at the time of the crime, and that he was driving to Florida to visit relatives. To corroborate his story, Pierre had a traffic ticket from South Carolina, and his girlfriend had a telephone bill showing that she received a collect call from South Carolina during the time Pierre said he was driving. The Union County Prosecutor’s Office had one witness placing Pierre at the scene of the crime, and claimed that it was Pierre’s brother who received the ticket in South Carolina. Pierre was ultimately convicted of murder, aggravated assault, armed robbery, and two weapons charges. He was sentenced to 60 years in a NJ state prison, with 35 years of parole ineligibility.
Pierre filed for post-conviction relief (PCR) on the grounds that his defense attorney failed to adequately develop his alibi defense. The defendant maintains that the outcome of the trial would have been different if the trial court had heard testimony from his Florida relatives and girlfriend that he was out-of-state, as well as testimony that would have cast doubt on the representations made by the State.
PCR case law states that when a petitioner asserts ineffective assistance of counsel, he must meet a two-prong test, pursuant to Strickland v. Washington:
- Counsel’s performance was not objectively reasonable, and
- Absent counsel’s errors, there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of the trial may have been different.
The NJ Supreme Court found that Pierre met both prongs of the test, on the following grounds:
- “[C]ounsel failed to present the testimony of Kirby [brother] or Astrid Pierre [then girlfriend] to rebut the State’s assertion that Kirby, not defendant, received the ticket in South Carolina.”
- “[C]ounsel declined to develop or present evidence that could have supported defendant’s assertion that, following the shooting, he stayed in Florida for several days to visit relatives.”
Lastly, the Court stated that the State’s evidence was “sparse” and non-conclusive; and therefore, a well-developed alibi defense could have cast reasonable doubt at trial that the defendant was involved in the murder and robbery.