Judge’s jury errors give man serving 50 years for manslaughter a new trial

The judge erred on instructions involving Anthony Harris’ prior criminal history, photos police used in their investigation, and who identified Harris as alleged gunman

By Kevin Shea

FLORENCE, N.J. - A cumulative set of errors by the judge at his second trial will give a man a third one for a 2016 shooting in Florence that killed an onlooker, a state appeals court ruled Wednesday.

Anthony Harris, 36, was convicted in October 2018 of aggravated manslaughter and firearms violations for the September 2016 death of Ronald Walker, 27, during a fist fight among other combatants. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison, with a mandatory minimum of 42.

Burlington County prosecutors allege Harris pulled a gun and fired, hitting Walker as he and about a dozen others, many who gathered to watch the fight, bolted from the scene on Zinc Street.

Harris’ first trial ended in a hung jury.

At his second, 12 witnesses testified over seven days for the prosecution for a case that was mainly circumstantial, the appellate decision states. Three of them implicated Harris, but gave differing accounts of what they saw, the decision says. Prosecutors also found bullet casings that suggest three guns were fired at the scene.

When the testimony ended, the judge charged, or instructed, the jury on several matters, and that’s where the errors occurred.

The judge erred on the instructions on several fronts: about Harris’ prior criminal history, the photos of Harris police used in their investigation, and who identified Harris as an alleged gunman, the decision says.

In one part, the court wrote that because the identification of Harris was a material matter and influenced by witness credibility, the judge erred on not instructing the jury on how police obtained the photos - which is not necessarily from a criminal matter, like a mugshot.

And then it was prejudicial, because without the judge’s guidance, the deliberating jury was left to speculate about defendant’s criminal history, which it did by sending a question to the judge asking that very question, the decision says.

In discussing two witnesses’ testimony, the judge’s summaries to the jury, “were both inaccurate and incomplete,” the appeals court wrote.

If the judge’s incomplete and inaccurate characterizations alone were the only missteps, the appeals judges said they might not have overturned Harris’ convictions. However, the combined impact of them warrants a new trial.

In another area, concerning the testimony of five witnesses who gave prior contradictory statements, the judge did not use the model jury instructions, and that again faults the cascading problems, the judges say.

“Standing alone, we might not find plain error in the judge’s failure to give the entire model charge. However, in light of the previously discussed errors in the jury charge, the failure to issue the model charge on prior contradictory statements takes on greater significance and, when considered cumulatively with the other errors, warrants reversal of defendant’s convictions,” the judges wrote.

The judge was not identified in the decision. Prior reports and authorities say Harris was tried and sentenced by Judge Charles Delehey, a retired, former longtime Mercer County judge who was recalled on a temporary basis about a decade ago to hear cases in Burlington County. Errors on jury instruction by Delehey also led to a new trial in murder case in Burlington County in July.

An attempt to reach Delehey through the state judiciary was not immediately successful.

The Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office said Wednesday it plans to retry Harris.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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