Making Sure Criminals Can’t Escape Facing Victims in Court

Colleen O'Dea | May 7, 2013 | More Issues, Social
Bill prompted by killer’s attempt to skip sentencing hearing would mandate attendance

Little more than six months after updating the rights of New Jersey’s crime victims, two lawmakers are looking to further strengthen the victim’s standing in court with legislation that would force a defendant to attend his sentencing to hear victim impact statements.

The bill introduced on Monday by Assembly members Anthony M. Bucco and BettyLou DeCroce, both R-Morris, was prompted by a Sussex County case in which the convicted murderer is seeking to skip his sentencing hearing.

The state Supreme Court is currently considering whether to compel Guiseppe Tedesco to attend his sentencing for the murder of Alyssa Ruggieri in her Hopatcong home three years ago. It is the first time the highest court has heard such a case.

Both a Superior Court judge and the Appellate Division denied Tedesco’s request to waive his right to appear at his sentencing. Michele Ruggieri, the victim’s mother, who is being represented by the New Jersey Crime Victims’ Law Center, challenged Tedesco’s request and is seeking to force him to be in court when she gives her impact statement.

Richard Pompelio, who founded the law center in 1992 after the murder of his son Tony, argued before the Supreme Court last week that the rights victims have under the state constitution and the Crime Victims Bill of Rights give them the ability to demand that the defendant be present to hear the victims’ impact statement.

“The passage of both the Victim’s Rights Amendment and the Crime Victims Bill of Rights reflects a powerful statement by the people of this State that a crime victim is an integral part of the criminal justice process,” Pompelio wrote in his brief to the court, the first time a victim has been allowed to be a party to such a case before the court. “As the rights of the defendant cannot be diminished; likewise, the rights of the victim must be given equal deference by the courts.”

Pompelio was one of the driving forces behind passage of the amendment, deciding to devote time to helping victims following the murder of his 17-year old son in 1989.

Victims had already gained some rights, including the right to compensation, since 1971, and the Legislature had enacted the bill of rights in 1985, but many victims said they still received second-class treatment. The 1991 constitutional amendment, approved overwhelmingly by voters, was meant to put victims on more solid ground in the legal process.

“The interpretive statement to the Victim’s Rights Amendment reminds us that it is designed to place victims on an equal footing with defendants by guaranteeing certain fundamental rights as a matter of State Constitutional imperative,” wrote Pompelio in his court brief.

New Jersey is one of 33 states that have written victims’ rights guarantees into the constitution.

Last year, BettyLou DeCroce co-sponsored a law designed to close some of the gaps through which victims were still falling in the criminal justice system. Named Alex DeCroce’s Law, after BettyLou DeCroce’s husband and sponsor of the amendment, the law gave victims several additional rights. It clarified that victims have the right to be free from harassment, be notified in a timely manner of the progress and scheduling of a court case, be notified of a defendant’s escape, have impact statements considered in pre-trial motions and plea agreements, and be allowed to display pictures of the victim of a homicide during sentencing.

But the Sussex County case uncovered another loophole in Tedesco’s attempt to escape his sentencing hearing and lawmakers are not waiting to see whether the Supreme Court will close it.

The bill introduced by Bucco and DeCroce would clarify that crime victims have the right to face a defendant at sentencing.

“Crime victims will always feel the pain, loss and suffering caused by crime,” BettyLou DeCroce said. “They deserve the opportunity to confront those who harmed them before justice is served. It’s mind-boggling to think that the Supreme Court has to even consider whether a convicted murderer has to appear in court for his sentencing.”

Tedesco’s attorney told the court that while crime victims have the right to address the court about the impact the crime has had on them, they are not guaranteed the right to address the defendant and his client should be able to decline attending the sentencing.

Tedesco, 27, was found guilty last January of shooting 22-year old Alyssa Ruggieri six times after, prosecutors said, she refused to go to a party with him. After the verdict was delivered, Tedesco yelled at the victim’s brother and had to be restrained by sheriff’s officers.

“While the defendant may desire to refrain from being present during these proceedings, his desire is subordinate under the law to the rights of the crime victims,” Pompelio wrote in his brief. “Defendant will suffer no impairment of any defined constitutional or statutory right if the court compels his attendance at the sentencing proceedings. However, the rights of the victims will not be so safeguarded if he is allowed to arbitrarily victimize the family of Alyssa Ruggieri one more time.

“To permit defendant to effectively thumb his nose at the court, the victims and the members of our society, is no less than an abomination of all that our system of American justice represents.”

Tedesco’s sentencing is on hold until the Supreme Court rules on the case. A decision is expected in the fall.

“Crime victims who have suffered a horrendous loss should decide for themselves whether addressing their assailant will help their grieving process,” Bucco said. “We hope the Supreme Court will use common sense and side with the Ruggiero family in this case. Meanwhile, we must change the law to make sure the courts never have to consider a case like this again.”