In what one advocate called the most important victims’ rights ruling in New Jersey history, the state Supreme Court on Monday ordered that a criminal defendant does not have an absolute right to skip his sentencing hearing.
While crime victims have both legal and constitutional protection in the state, including the right to tell the court how the crime affected them, there is no statutory requirement that the person who committed the crime has to appear in court to listen to the victim’s impact statement.
But the court agreed with the victim in this case – the mother of a murdered Sussex County woman – who argued as a friend of the court that her right to deliver an impact statement is “perhaps the single most important right” under the Crime Victims Bill of rights and it “will be meaningless” if the defendant can choose not to attend.
“There can be little doubt that from the standpoint of the victims, who are to be treated with fairness, compassion, respect, and dignity, their statements at sentencing will carry more meaning if they are heard not only by the judge but the defendant as well,” wrote Chief Justice Stuart Rabner for a unanimous court.
Richard Pompelio, who founded the New Jersey Crime Victims Law Center after his son was murdered and in this case represented Michele Ruggieri, the victim’s mother, called the decision “the most important victims’ rights decision in New Jersey’s history” and said it may be unique in the nation.
He said that while notorious serial killer Charles Cullen, the former nurse who confessed to killing at least 40 people in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, had also sought not to attend his sentencing, that case did not go to the Supreme Court.
Jeffrey S. Mandel, who had filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey, agreed.
“While Kansas’ high court discussed it, our court elaborated and provided great support for its decision,” said Mandel, who had argued that a victim has no right to address a defendant and that forcing the defendant to appear serves no public policy purpose.
The court also dismissed the contention by Guiseppe Tedesco, convicted of murdering Alyssa Ruggieri in her Hopatcong home three years ago, that he had the right to decline to appear at his sentencing.
The law allows a defendant to waive his constitutional right to be present at his sentencing. But whether that actually happens can only be decided by the trial judge, not the defendant, who “cannot force the court to sentence him in absentia,” according to the decision.
Tedesco, 27, was found guilty last January of shooting 22-year old Alyssa Ruggieri six times after she refused to go to a party with him, according to prosecutors.
The case garnered more than the usual attention due to Tedesco’s alleged conduct on receiving the verdict. According to court papers, Tedesco allegedly made eye contact with and mouthed an obscenity to each juror being polled, pushed and injured a corrections officer, and threatened the victim’s brother.
His request to waive his right to appear at his sentencing was denied both by the Superior Court judge who heard his case and by an appellate panel.
The case prompted two legislators to introduce a bill, A-4118, that would specifically require defendants to attend their sentencing
“In this case, we find that defendant’s reasons for wanting to be absent from sentencing are not special or persuasive,” Rabner wrote in affirming the lower court rulings. “Balanced against them are factors that favor his presence: the seriousness of the offense, the victim’s interest in having defendant present as she addresses the court, and concerns about public accountability, deterrence, and the administration and integrity of the justice system.”
Pompelio, a former chairman of the New Jersey Victims of Crime Compensation Board, said the impact of the decision “is substantial.”
In addition to affirming the importance of a victim’s right to deliver an impact statement that is “effective,” the court validated the standing of the victim to at least make an amicus argument, which “opens the door” for other victims to initiate the action to enforce victims’ rights, he noted. It also stated explicitly that victims’ constitutional rights are “substantive” and the court needs to balance them against the rights of defendants.
“Perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates how far we have come in New Jersey in just three decades in the quest for equal justice for victims,” said Pompelio, who has been one of the leaders in that quest. “The contrast between the language of this decision and the general practice of the courts 25 years ago on issues affecting the rights of victims is certainly amazing.”
The court’s decision essentially acknowledged that, as well.
“In recent years, a series of changes in the law has steadily strengthened the rights of victims to participate in criminal proceedings,” Rabner wrote, and then gave a brief history of the state’s victims’ rights amendments. “Those developments reveal a steady movement in the law to recognize and enhance the rights of crime victims.”
Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, applauded the court’s decision, particularly its statement that the defendant’s rights must be balanced against those of the victim and that defendants must be held accountable for their crimes before the public.
“Not all victims choose to make a statement, but when they do it is often their one chance to be heard, to get closure, and move on to rebuild their lives,” Fernandez said.
The Supreme Court ordered Tedesco’s sentencing to proceed and said he must be present. The sentencing had been on hold while the appeals played out.
“While we had hoped for a different outcome, it is hard to argue with the court’s reasoning,” Mandel said. “It is well-settled that certain decisions about court procedure remain within the discretion of the trial judge and it is very difficult to get those reversed on appeal.”
Tedesco’s attorney did not return a request for comment.
He had argued that, among other reasons, he should not have to attend the sentencing because it would prevent the kinds of disruptions that occurred when the verdict was handed down. In his brief seeking to compel Tedesco’s appearance, one of the Sussex County assistant prosecutors handling the case reportedly wrote that should the defendant make a scene, the judge could bind and gag him.
The court appeared to address that idea in its decision.
“We do not assume that defendants will be unruly or disruptive at sentencing because they have filed a waiver request that has been denied,” Rabner wrote. “If in a rare case the proceedings head in that direction, we are confident that trial judges will maintain proper decorum. Judges have various ways to achieve that aim.”
Should a defendant continue to disrupt the hearing, the court cautioned against shackling and gagging him.
“We cannot envision a set of circumstances when that approach would be the wisest course,” the decision concludes. “To ask victims to speak over a defendant who is bent on disrupting their words would rob the hearing of the very dignity and respect the victims are due.”
Mandel, who had argued that sentencing “does not include punishment in the form of verbal rebuke or public ridicule,” said that while Tedesco now must attend the sentencing, there is no way to force him to pay attention.
“Perhaps going forward this defendant will simply close his eyes and do his best to cover his ears,” Mandel said. “However, nobody and nothing can make him actually look or listen at those who seek to publicly rebuke him.”