An overturned Cumberland County attempted murder case could mean the defendant could be home for Christmas.
Ricky Howard’s conviction was based on errors in the jury instruction, the circumstantial nature of the state’s case and “the hotly contested issue of his identity as the perpetrator,” according to an appellate decision in the case.
Now he is entitled to a new trial — and a bail hearing.
Howard, 36, of Newfield, Gloucester County, was sentenced to 45 years in prison in 2016 for the Oct. 25, 2014 incident, when 11 shots were fired in the Delsea Village Apartment Complex in Millville.
No one was struck in the shooting, but Howard, then 33, was charged with attempted murder. He faced 20 years in prison, but his sentencing as a “persistent offender” allowed for the much longer sentence.
But it was an unsubstantiated allegation that Howard fled police that led to the conviction, defense attorney Wayne Powell told BreakingAC.
The appellate judges agreed that “the issuance of the flight charge in this case was not harmless error.”
While they found there was not clear evidence that Howard fled police who were stationed outside his home, the judges also agree there was a question as to whether the jurors were clear on when the alleged flight took place.
They may have thought the charge referenced Howard allegedly getting into a van after the shooting and leaving the scene. But the alleged flight was three days later.
“This unfortunate phraseology increased the potential to confuse the jury,” the appellate judges wrote.
“I believe he would have been acquitted but for the flight charge,” Powell said.
Powell said he has a great deal of respect for Judge Cristen D’Arrigo, but that — in this case — the call was wrong.
Now, Howard will be sent back to the Cumberland County jail from New Jersey State Prison, where he has been serving his sentence for nearly two years.
Because Howard’s charges came before bail reform, he is entitled to a bail hearing, Powell said.
“He’s not home yet,” Powell said, adding that he has not yet had a chance to talk to his client. “He’s not home yet, but will hopefully be home for Christmas.”
A bail hearing is expected to be scheduled after the judge is back Monday, and then the process for rescheduling a trial will begin, unless the state decides not to move forward, Powell explained.
“I believe this time will have a much different outcome,” he said.
If Howard is not freed on bail, he would await trail in the county facility rather than state prison.
By Saturday, Howard was out of state custody, and his inmate page on the state Department of Corrections site was down.