A deeply split New Jersey Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the conviction of a Florida woman found guilty of killing her young son in New Jersey three decades ago, with the justices divided on whether the state presented enough evidence to justify the jury's verdict.
Michelle Lodzinski's attorneys called the decision “a travesty of justice” and said they would consider appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The death of 5-year-old Timothy Wiltsey was one of New Jersey's most infamous cold cases after his disappearance in May 1991 and the discovery of his body several months later.
Lodzinski, his mother, was convicted in 2016 and is serving a 30-year prison sentence. Wednesday's 3-3 ruling, in which Chief Justice Stuart Rabner did not participate, upheld the conviction.
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Lodzinski had been a suspect from the outset after she told investigators the boy disappeared while they were at a carnival in Sayreville but gave varying accounts describing strangers who could have kidnapped him.
Lodzinski went on with her life and had two other children, and was living in Port St. Lucie, Florida, in 2014 when authorities in New Jersey charged her with killing Wiltsey. Investigators said a break in the case had come when one of Wiltsey’s former babysitters identified a blue blanket, found near the boy’s body 11 months after he disappeared, as belonging to Lodzinski.
During her 2016 trial and on appeal, Lodzinski’s lawyers argued that no forensic evidence tied her to the blanket and that prosecutors didn’t produce enough evidence to show Lodzinski purposely caused the boy’s death. A cause of death couldn’t be determined because Wiltsey’s body had deteriorated.
Prosecutors argued the totality of the evidence was enough to prove Lodzinski's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. An appeals court agreed in 2019 when it upheld Lodzinski’s conviction.
In an opinion Wednesday, Justice Anne Patterson wrote that the sum of the circumstantial evidence presented by the state was sufficient for a jury to reach a guilty verdict. Two justices joined Patterson’s opinion.
In a stinging dissent joined by two other justices, Justice Barry Albin wrote that the state presented “absolutely no evidence that (Lodzinski) purposely or knowingly caused his death.”
“In the modern annals of New Jersey legal history” Albin wrote, “to my knowledge, no murder conviction has ever been upheld on such a dearth of evidence.”
In an email Wednesday, Lodzinski's attorneys Gerald Krovatin and David Fassett wrote, “Simply put, this case never should have been charged, much less allowed to proceed to trial and verdict. To permit this completely unsupported verdict to stand — and Ms. Lodzinski to remain in prison, having already served almost seven years for a crime she did not commit — is a travesty of justice.”
The Supreme Court rejected defense attorneys' arguments that the dismissal of the jury foreman during deliberations should have merited a mistrial. The juror was dismissed after it was revealed he had done Internet research on FBI crime-scene guidelines and shared his findings with other jurors. An alternate stepped in and the panel reached a guilty verdict several hours later.