New panel will consider creating cold case unit and convictions review unit for New Jersey

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal today announced that a panel led by former New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Virginia Long will consider whether the state should create two new law enforcement units —  a cold case unit that would attempt to solve old crimes using new technology and other investigative tools, and a conviction review unit that would review claims of actual innocence by those convicted of serious crimes.

The announcement comes just one week after Eric Kelly and Ralph Lee were exonerated for the 1993 murder of Tito Merino in Passaic County. The two men served more than 24 years in prison for a crime they did not commit. Centurion Ministries, the Princeton-based nonprofit that works to free innocent people from prison, helped free Lee. Kelly was a client of the Innocence Project.

Last September, a New Jersey Superior Court Judge vacated the men’s convictions based on DNA evidence identifying another suspect. The post-conviction DNA testing of a hat recovered at the scene that the prosecution long maintained had been worn by the assailant excluded both Kelly and Lee, and matched to another man who had recently been released from prison for committing a similar crime.

Kelley and Lee were released on bail shortly after, but the prosecution appealed both the decision and their release. In March, the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division unanimously affirmed the decision vacating the convictions. Last week, the state announced it was dismissing the charges.

Grewal said the goal of convening the panel is to strengthen the public’s confidence in the state’s criminal justice system. The panel will make policy recommendations about whether to create the two units and, if so, how they should be structured and staffed.

The Attorney General’s Office also has hired former New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice James Zazzali to review the Passaic County Prosecutor’s handling of the Kelley and Lee case. Zazzali will examine how prosecutors learned about evidence that was potentially exculpatory, and how attorneys and staff responded to the discovery of that evidence. The New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice, which investigates and prosecutes criminal matters in the Attorney General’s Office, will take over the investigation into Merino’s murder.

“Let me be clear:  I have great confidence in the skill, integrity and professionalism of the men and women who make up the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office. Nothing about today’s announcement changes that,” Grewal said. “As someone who has spent most of his professional life as a state or federal prosecutor, I know how important it is that the public have confidence in the work that we do. Our job is not to win convictions, but to do justice in each and every case. I know that view is shared by prosecutors across the state of New Jersey, and I look forward to taking steps that will help demonstrate to the public our commitment to doing justice every day.”