NJ high court overturns conviction over ‘Shining’ reference

Posted at 6:49 AM, January 20, 2021 and last updated 3:24 PM, July 21, 2023

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — 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.

Damon Williams (NJ Dept. of Corrections)

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.