The New Jersey Supreme court has overturned a man’s bank robbery conviction because of a prosecutor’s reference to a classic horror movie.
During closing arguments in the case against Damon Williams, the prosecutor showed jurors a photo from the movie “The Shining” depicting a character played by Jack Nicholson telling his terrified wife and son, “Here’s Johnny!” moments after breaking through a door with an axe.
The reference was meant to illustrate that actions can speak louder than words, and to support the prosecutor’s contention that Williams should be convicted of a more serious offense even though no threatening words were spoken to the bank teller in Camden County in 2014.
The jury convicted Williams of second-degree robbery, which requires the use of force or the threat of force, rather than the less serious crime of third-degree theft. Prosecutors argued that Williams’ conduct before and after passing a note to the teller supported the more serious charge. Williams is currently serving a 14-year term.
A unanimous Supreme Court disagreed Tuesday, writing that prosecutors “must walk a fine line” when comparing a defendant with “an individual whom the jury associates with violence or guilt.”
“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,” Justice Lee Solomon wrote. “Such a risk was borne out here.”
The Camden County prosecutor’s office, which tried the case, declined to comment on the ruling Tuesday.
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