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Mother’s murder conviction dismissed in 1991 death of 5-year-old son

Then, in
2014, authorities arrested the boy’s mother, Michelle Lodzinski, whose shifting
accounts of the day her son was last seen had made her a suspect from the
start. Two years later, a jury convicted her of murder despite a lack of
physical evidence tying her to the death.

On Tuesday,
in a startling turn, New Jersey’s highest court vacated Lodzinski’s conviction,
ruling in a 4-3 decision that the absence of evidence was so significant that
prosecutors could not prove she had intentionally killed her son.

“After
reviewing the entirety of the evidence and after giving the state the benefit
of all its favorable testimony and all the favorable inferences drawn from that
testimony,” the court’s majority wrote, “no reasonable jury could find beyond a
reasonable doubt” that Lodzinski had “purposefully or knowingly caused
Timothy’s death.”

Gerald
Krovatin, a lawyer for Lodzinski, hailed the decision, which prevents his
client from being retried.

“It’s a
great day for the rule of law, and for the principle that a conviction must be
based on evidence, not on speculation and emotion,” said Krovatin, who
represented Lodzinski along with David W Fassett. “The majority opinion makes
that very clear.”

Krovatin
added that Lodzinski, 54, was “elated and extraordinarily grateful to everyone
who has stood by her throughout this long ordeal.”

Conner JE
Ouellette, an assistant prosecutor and spokesperson for Yolanda Ciccone, the
current Middlesex County prosecutor, said the office “must respectfully decline
to comment” on the court’s decision.

Lodzinski
was 23, estranged from Timothy’s father and raising her son by herself in
central New Jersey when the boy vanished May 25, 1991.

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The story
she told the police that night was a parent’s nightmare scenario: She and
Timothy had been at a Memorial Day weekend carnival in Sayreville and had
enjoyed a few rides when she went for a soda, diverting her attention from the
boy for only two to three minutes.

“He doesn’t
like to wait on lines,” she told a New York Times reporter that year.

When she
turned back around, he was gone. She screamed and told passersby that her son
was missing. The carnival was shut down and hundreds of police officers and
volunteers scoured the area as helicopters hovered above. The search was
fruitless.

Almost from
the outset, suspicions fell on Lodzinski, who offered varying descriptions of
strangers who she said she had seen and who she suggested might have abducted
the boy.

Several
months after Timothy disappeared, one of his sneakers was found in a marshy
section of an office park where Lodzinski had once worked. Several months after
that, his partial remains were found in the same area.

Despite
national attention that included two segments on the television show “America’s
Most Wanted” and photos of the missing boy’s face on thousands of milk cartons,
the investigation fizzled and no charges were filed.

Time passed
and Lodzinski moved on with her life. She had two other sons and eventually
moved to Florida. She was living there when she was arrested and charged with
murder.

Investigators,
who had reopened the case several years earlier, said the break came when a
niece of Lodzinski’s who used to babysit Timothy identified a blue blanket
found with his body as belonging to Lodzinski. Two other witnesses also linked
the blanket to Lodzinski, whom prosecutors portrayed at trial as a woman
struggling to raise the boy herself.

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But as her
lawyers noted, at trial and on appeal, there was no forensic evidence
connecting her to the tattered cloth.

Prosecutors
argued that other evidence, including her shifting story and evasive answers to
law enforcement authorities in the investigation’s early stages, combined with
the blanket established her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury agreed,
and she was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

In 2019, an
appeals court upheld the conviction and this past May, the state Supreme Court
did the same when, with the chief justice not participating, it split 3-3 on
Lodzinski’s appeal.

In October,
the Supreme Court took the rare step of agreeing to rehear the case after
acknowledging that it had made a procedural error in its initial consideration
of the appellate decision. For the rehearing, it added an appellate judge, who
broke the tie in Lodzinski’s favor.

In a
dissenting opinion, the three judges who voted to uphold the conviction said
there was ample evidence to support the jury’s decision. Among other things,
the judges noted that Timothy’s remains had been found close to Lodzinski’s
former workplace and that her answers to investigators had seemed evasive.

“Today’s
decision undermines the core principle of appellate deference to a jury verdict
in a criminal trial and undermines the jury’s role at the heart of our criminal
justice system,” the dissenting judges wrote. “We consider the defendant’s
acquittal to be unwarranted and unjust.”

As for what
Lodzinski, who has been in custody since her arrest in 2014, will do now,
Krovatin said that a Middlesex County judge had ordered her immediate release.

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In the
meantime, a notorious cold case appears to be cold once again.

© 2022 The
New York Times Company

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