Unfair to try Muslim defendant over anniversary of September 11 attacks?

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

From State v. M.R. (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Nov. 18, 2014):

Defendant's trial began on September 8, 2010, and ended on September 22, 2010. He contends that scheduling the trial of a fundamentalist Muslim during the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, following "substantial media coverage of the Ground Zero Mosque and Quran Burning controversies," deprived him of an impartial jury and a fair trial. He further contends the court conducted inadequate voir dire of prospective jurors to determine their attitudes about those events and defendant's religion.

Not so, says the court; see pp. 19-27 of the opinion.

The defendant, by the way, is the same one involved in the 2009 civil restraining order case in which a New Jersey trial court accepted a "cultural defense" as to nonconsensual sex:

The record reflects that plaintiff, S.D., and defendant, M.J.R., are citizens of Morocco and adherents to the Muslim faith. They were wed in Morocco in an arranged marriage on July 31, 2008, when plaintiff was seventeen years old. The parties did not know each other prior to the marriage. On August 29, 2008, they came to New Jersey as the result of defendant's employment in this country as an accountant….

[Long discussion of the wife's allegations of abuse, which included several instances of nonconsensual sex as well as other abuse, omitted for space reasons. -EV]

Upon their return to the apartment, defendant forced plaintiff to have sex with him while she cried. Plaintiff testified that defendant always told her

this is according to our religion. You are my wife, I c[an] do anything to you. The woman, she should submit and do anything I ask her to do.

After having sex, defendant took plaintiff to a travel agency to buy a ticket for her return to Morocco. However the ticket was not purchased, and the couple returned to the apartment. Once there, defendant threatened divorce, but nonetheless again engaged in nonconsensual sex while plaintiff cried. Later that day, defendant and his mother took plaintiff to the home of the Imam and, in the presence of the Imam, his wife, and defendant's mother, defendant verbally divorced plaintiff….

The judge found from his review of the evidence that plaintiff had proven by a preponderance of the evidence that defendant had engaged in harassment, pursuant to N.J.S.A. § 2C:33-4b and c, and assault. He found that plaintiff had not proven criminal restraint, sexual assault or criminal sexual contact. In finding assault to have occurred, the judge credited, as essentially uncontradicted, plaintiff's testimony regarding the events of November 1, 16 and 22, 2008. The judge based his findings of harassment on plaintiff's "clear proof" of the nonconsensual sex occurring during the three days in November and on the events of the night of January 15 to 16. He did not credit plaintiff's testimony of sexual assaults thereafter, since there was no corroboration in plaintiff's complaints to the police. [Footnote: In response to an objection by plaintiff's counsel, the judge later recognized that the police report upon which he relied in finding no corroboration for plaintiff's claims had not been admitted in evidence because of its hearsay nature. However, he declined to modify his ruling.]

While recognizing that defendant had engaged in sexual relations with plaintiff against her expressed wishes in November 2008 and on the night of January 15 to 16, 2009, the judge did not find sexual assault or criminal sexual conduct to have been proven. He stated:

This court does not feel that, under the circumstances, that this defendant had a criminal desire to or intent to sexually assault or to sexually contact the plaintiff when he did. The court believes that he was operating under his belief that it is, as the husband, his desire to have sex when and whether he wanted to, was something that was consistent with his practices and it was something that was not prohibited.

After acknowledging that this was a case in which religious custom clashed with the law, and that under the law, plaintiff had a right to refuse defendant's advances, the judge found that defendant did not act with a criminal intent when he repeatedly insisted upon intercourse, despite plaintiff's contrary wishes.

Having found acts of domestic violence consisting of assault and harassment to have occurred, the judge turned to the issue of whether a final restraining order should be entered. He found such an order unnecessary, vacated the temporary restraints previously entered in the matter and dismissed plaintiff's domestic violence action.

The appellate court in that earlier case quite rightly reversed the trial court's refusal to enter the restraining order:

Defendant's conduct in engaging in nonconsensual sexual intercourse was unquestionably knowing, regardless of his view that his religion permitted him to act as he did.

As the judge recognized, the case thus presents a conflict between the criminal law and religious precepts. In resolving this conflict, the judge determined to except defendant from the operation of the State's statutes as the result of his religious beliefs. In doing so, the judge was mistaken.

The appellate court remanded for entry of a restraining order. Note that the woman was pregnant with the couple's child at the time of the initial hearing, so that despite the divorce it seemed likely that the man and the woman would remain in contact; this is legally relevant because restraining orders are designed to prevent future harm, not to punish for past misbehavior.

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