Murder Conviction Reversed On Prejudicial Hearsay
- March 19, 2015
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Stephen Scharf was convicted of first-degree purposeful and knowing murder (N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1) and (2)) for the murder of his wife, Jody Scharf. Stephen and Jody Scharf were together at the top of the Englewood Cliffs in Bergen County. The defendant contacted the police indicating Jody Scharf must have slipped from Rockefeller Lookout atop the cliffs when he returned to their vehicle to obtain a blanket. The body of Jody Scharf was later located at the bottom of the cliffs, a distance of 52 feet from the base horizontally. The defendant was interviewed by police and the parties’ son corroborated his story but also added that the night prior to Jody Scharf’s death, he had accompanied them to a late dinner as his mother did not wish to be alone with his father upon whom she had recently served divorce papers claiming abuse and adultery. Both of the parties’ sons also provided details of their mother’s fear of heights with regard to the notion of her interest in going to the edge of the cliffs. In addition to the fact that Jody Scharf had filed for divorce, the defendant stood to receive $500,000 in life insurance proceeds from her death. In State v. Scharf, pre-trial motions to suppress hearsay testimony from Jody Scharf’s counselor and friends were denied based on the judge’s reliance on State v. Benedetto, 120 N.J. 250 (1990) and N.J.R.E. 803(c)(3) and the jury was permitted to hear statements about the likelihood defendant murdered Jody Scharf or that she had been afraid of him. The prosecution and defense offered conflicting testimony as to how the body ended up 52 feet from the base of the cliffs. Two of defendant’s paramours contradicted Sharf’s claims to police that he and Jody Scharf were attempting to reconcile and had terminated relationships with them. Defendant appealed the guilty verdict in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County and the sentence of life in prison with a 30-year parole ineligibility period. The NJ Appellate Division considered defendant’s challenge to the hearsay evidence admitted below under N.J.R.E. 401 with regard to the weight of prejudice against the weight of probative value and N.J.R.E. 801(c) pertaining directly to hearsay defined as “a statement, other than one made by the declarant while testifying at the trial or hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted.” The Appellate Division referenced State v. Calleia, 206 N.J. 274 (2011) wherein the court considered statements of fear which had the danger of creating an inference of violence as an ongoing part of the relationship between the victim and defendant against the introduction of statements to establish the defendant’s motive to commit the crime. Ultimately, motive evidence was held to be admissible as a “material issue in a case.” Id. at 293-294, provided that the danger of prejudice by the statement offered does not outweigh the probative value. In this balancing, it is the burden of the party seeking exclusion of the statement to establish that it is more likely to be prejudicial than probative. State v. Morton, 155 N.J. 383,453 (1998). Pursuant to Calleia, the State must then show that the accused was most likely aware of the decedent’s statement. The NJ Appellate Division determined the statements offered were “neither relevant nor material” and that they were “highly prejudicial and clearly cumulative.” The court held that the victims fear of defendant did not make it any more or less likely that she slipped and fell off the cliff to which she voluntarily accompanied the defendant, especially in light of the fact that the autopsy did reveal that she was clearly under the influence of alcohol while on the edge of the cliff. Ultimately, the NJ Appellate Division determined that the defendant had quite possibly been deprived of a fair trial and reversed and remanded the matter for a retrial. If you are facing charges of murder you are looking at a sentence of 30 years to life and even for lesser included offenses the sentence can be the same as life in prison depending on your age at sentencing. When confronting such charges, it is imperative that you have experienced and trusted criminal defense counsel at your side to ensure you have the best chance possible in fighting the case and protecting your rights. For more information about murder, aggravated manslaughter, assault or weapons charges in New Jersey visit HeatherDarlingLawyer.com. This blog is for informational purposes only and not intended to replace the advice of an attorney.