CAMDEN - An appeals court has ordered a new trial for a city man who's been serving a 60-year term for murder.
Multiple errors "before and during the trial" tainted the convictions of Jerry Reyes, 34, who is accused of killing a man on a city street in March 2016, the three-judge panel said.
Among other criticisms, it said a trial judge allowed "highly prejudicial" testimony against Reyes and gave "misleading" guidelines to a jury that deliberated for two hours before finding Reyes guilty of all counts.
Among other points, the 49-page ruling also said the judge "failed to address" Reyes' requests to replace his public defender prior to his trial in July 2018.
"Considering the individual errors and their cumulative effect, we are
unable to conclude the cumulative error was harmless or that defendant had a
fair trial," said the Jan. 13 decision.
Reyes was convicted of killing Luis "Cito" Feliu, a 28-year-old city man in a daylight shooting in March 2016.
Superior Court Judge John Kelley, who has since retired, imposed a 60-year term for the murder, with an additional five years for a weapons offense.
According to the ruling, Reyes acknowledged challenging Feliu to a fight, but said an unknown person had fired the fatal shots. He denied having a gun and claimed he fled the scene with a cell phone in his hand.
But Reyes' jury was wrongly allowed to hear repeated claims that he was armed, the appellate court said.
In a recorded interview seen by the jury, two detectives repeatedly insisted to Reyes that surveillance video and information from crime-scene witnesses showed he had a gun.
"You pulled a gun out right there … It's obvious," a detective says at one point.
After Reyes repeatedly denied having a gun, Camden County Police Detective Michael Sutley responded, "You can watch it."
"You can see it!," added Camden County Prosecutor's Detective Michael Donlon.
The ruling noted Kelley, in allowing the interview into evidence, had noted it was "inappropriate for the detectives to give their take on what happened." But it said the judge did not edit the comments from the recording or to give the jury a “curative instruction.”
The ruling added police testimony "concerning a defendant's guilt or veracity is particularly prejudicial because "[a] jury may be inclined to accord special respect to such a witness,"
It also said Kelley allowed hearsay testimony from Sutley about people who provided incriminating evidence against Reyes. Because those people did not appear as witnesses, Reyes was denied his right to confront accusers, the ruling continued.
“These errors had the clear capacity to cause an unjust result,” it said.
Kelley’s instructions to the jury prior to deliberations were inconsistent with a verdict sheet used by the jurors, the ruling continued.
The resulting confusion "had the potential to foreclose jury consideration" of a potential guilty verdict for a lesser charge of passion provocation manslaughter — a homicide committed in the heat of passion after a reasonable provocation.
Reyes' public defender had requested consideration of the lesser charge, saying the jury might find the killing occurred after Feliu tried to punch Reyes and instead hit a female friend of the defendant.
The ruling also noted Kelley, after being asked by Reyes for a new public defender, did not conduct a "substantial cause analysis" to determine the merits of those requests.
It acknowledged Reyes made two of his requests in letters, rather than court motions, sent in August and October 2016.
"But that does not explain why the trial judge failed to address (Reyes') repeatedly raised concerns about his counsel at one of the pretrial conferences," the ruling said.
Jim Walsh covers public safety, economic development and other beats for the Courier-Post, Burlington County Times and The Daily Journal.
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This article originally appeared on Cherry Hill Courier-Post: Appeals court finds multiple errors in trial of Jerry Reyes of Camden