Across the state, lawyers are watching such cases closely. The Hinds verdict surprised Camden County prosecutors, and experts question whether juries understand the duress defense.
Deputy Assistant Prosecutor Josh Ottenberg of the Camden County Prosecutor's Office said juries were instructed on complicated legal issues, and the verdict slip - the legal document juries fill out for the court record - is confusing.
"We bore them to death," Ottenberg said. "The instructions are brutal."
The New Jersey Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a case involving a gang member in Mercer County who used a duress defense similar to Hinds'.
Angel Hernandez, a Netas street gang member, was convicted of killing a young mother after she witnessed an attack on a rival Latin King in 2004.
He appealed for a new trial, arguing that jurors were not adequately instructed to reduce murder to manslaughter if they found he was under duress. The Supreme Court has not scheduled a date to hear the case.
Rules for using the duress defense vary from state to state. Federal law, which is not binding on New Jersey courts, does not permit duress as a defense if a defendant is in a gang or the mafia, both of which are known to use extreme violence.
In New Jersey, where street gangs have a presence in most cities and some smaller towns, the law does not specifically address gang membership.
"Juries typically don't buy that defense," said George Thomas, a Rutgers-Newark law professor.
It's more likely to be accepted in cases in which a person is kidnapped and forced to break the law, he said. In some states, duress cannot be argued at all in murder cases.
"I'm a little surprised that the jury bought the defense in this [Camden] case," Thomas said. "Every jury is different. And you never know what a jury is going to do."
In Newark, a defendant argued that he was coerced into joining the MS-13 street gang when he participated in the execution-style shootings of four friends on a schoolyard playground in 2007. Three of the victims died.
Alexander Alfaro, 20, said his half-brother persuaded him to join the gang and take a machete to a robbery that preceded the killings, according to published reports. At Alfaro's trial last year, the jury did not find that he had been under duress. He has been sentenced to 212 years.
In Camden, Edward Crisonino, Hinds' attorney, said his client had a legitimate duress case. Hinds participated in the slayings only because he feared what would happen to him if he did not, Hinds told investigators and his lawyer.
"That was the defense from day one," Crisonino said. "Given the facts of the case, it was not whether he did it. It was how much did he do and why he did it."
After hearing the case, the judge instructed jurors about duress, telling them the defense was "unavailable to the defendant if you find that he recklessly placed himself in a situation in which it was probable that he would be subjected to duress."
Hinds was taking classes at Burlington County College when he joined the Lueders Park Piru Bloods, a loosely knit offshoot of the violent Bloods gang.
Camden County Assistant Prosecutor Christine Shah argued in court that Hinds knew the gang was violent and that the gang was angry Hawkins was a member of the rival Crips.
According to court testimony and Hinds' confession to investigators, on Feb. 22, 2010, gang leader Kuasheim "Presto" Powell called Hinds for help after the gang launched an assault on Hawkins. Hinds took a bus from Maple Shade to Camden, where Hawkins had been shot, stabbed, and beaten. Hinds twice hit Hawkins with a bat and helped strangle Huff during a frenzy that included at least 10 gang members.
If he did not help, Hinds said in his confession, "I would be the third body."
Contact Barbara Boyer at 856-779-3838, email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @BBBoyer.