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The child endangerment and child abuse statutes require a conscious and knowing action by defendant. N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2C:24-4a, 9:6-3. The modifying language of "which would impair or debauch the morals of a child," N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:24-4a, or "that may tend to debauch or degrade the morals of a child," N.J. Stat. Ann. § 9:6-1, is merely a consequence of that act. To convict a defendant of child endangerment, the State has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knowingly engaged in sexual conduct which would impair or debauch the victim's morals, or knowingly caused the victim harm that would make her an abused or neglected child. Thus, the defendant had to be aware that he engaged in the sexual conduct or had to be aware that his conduct was practically certain to cause the victim the required harm. To convict the defendant of child abuse, the State has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knowingly performed any indecent, immoral, or unlawful act or deed that may have tended to debauch or degrade the victim's morals. Thus, the defendant had to be aware that he performed such an act.
Defendant claimed that he had been sleepwalking and woke up in his girlfriend's granddaughter's bed, naked. Defendant was convicted of second-degree endangering the welfare of a child, and fourth-degree child abuse. Defendant challenged his conviction, pointing to comments by the prosecutor in summation that the jury could believe defendant's testimony that he was sleepwalking and still convict him of child endangerment and child abuse, suggesting those convictions could be based upon a culpability state below "knowing", the mental state required for these offenses.
Could a defendant be convicted of child endangerment and child abuse on the basis of a culpability state below "knowing”?
The appellate court held that because of the content of the prosecutor's comments, which were not objected to, and were not corrected by the trial court, and because the trial court did not give a curative instruction, the possibility of an unjust result was sufficient to raise a reasonable doubt as to whether the error led the jury to a result it otherwise might not have reached. Although the trial judge apparently recognized the jury's potential confusion with respect to the knowing and voluntary act requirements of the offenses, nevertheless, he denied defendant's motion for a judgment of acquittal n.o.v. To support criminal liability, defendant's act had to be voluntary. If the act was committed by defendant in a sleepwalking state, it was not voluntary, and could not underpin convictions of the offenses. The prosecutor misstated the law when he told the jury it could find defendant guilty of the two offenses based solely on his "act" of going to bed naked with no lock on his bedroom door, with two children sleeping in the house, knowing he had a propensity to sleepwalk.