SAYREVILLE, NJ—In a stunning and unprecedented ruling, the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned its own decision, throwing out a murder conviction against a mother accused of killing her young son more than thirty years ago.
Michelle Lodzinski’s conviction in the the murder of five-year-old Timothy Wiltsey had previously been affirmed on May 26 by a 3-3 vote of the state’s highest court, with three justices finding sufficient evidence for Lodzinski’s conviction and three other justices stating that the evidence presented was insufficient to justify the jury verdict.
Their decision had come almost thirty years to the day Lodzinski, then age 23, reported Wiltsey missing after allegedly losing sight of him at a carnival on Memorial Day weekend 1991.
But the Supreme Court changed its mind, allowing a new justice to temporarily join the court to break the tie, and ultimately finding in a 4-3 decision that the evidence against Lodzinski was insufficient to support her conviction.
Wiltsey’s remains were found in the Raritan Center section of Edison in 1992, and Lodzinski was considered a suspect because she kept changing her story. But no charges were filed against her for decades, she started a new life in Florida and raised two children there before she was arrested in 2014 following new developments in the “cold case.”
The saga dragged on for several more years, long after a jury sitting in New Brunswick convicted her in 2016, and a Judge sentenced her to 30 years behind bars in early 2017.
It seemed like the high court’s 3-3 deadlock in May would be the end of the road, with the underlying conviction upheld in the absence of a majority vote to overturn it.
It’s rare for the court to have a tie vote, because it typically has seven members participated. But Chief Justice Stuart Rabner had recused himself from the case, declining to participate without explaining why.
But, after a motion to reconsider was filed by Lodzinski’s lawyers, the court agreed to temporarily tap an Appellate Court Judge to serve as a seventh member that could break the tie.
On October 6, the court announced it would reconsider its own decision, a rare occurrence where the court agreed to re-open the case with a seventh judge filling in for Rabner temporarily, acknowledging that the justices had applied the wrong standard in their initial decision.
Appellate Court Judge Jose L. Fuentes was designated as a Supreme Court Justice for this case only, and ultimately cast the deciding vote to free Lodzinski from state prison.
Though the decision to reconsider was stunning to the legal community, observers such as the New Jersey Law Journal (NJLJ) Editorial Board defended the move.
“We believe that the majority decision was correct in these exceptional circumstances,” wrote the editorial board. “In order to avoid further claims that Lodzinski was denied due process, either in a petition for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court or in post-conviction proceedings, both fairness and prudence require that the tie be broken so that a majority will decide, one way or the other, whether the weight of all the evidence supports the jury’s verdict.”
Justice Anne Patterson wrote the dissenting opinion on the motion to reconsider, arguing it would set a bad precedent.
“While Justice Patterson’s dissent is correct that the decision to reconsider is unprecedented, so is the procedural tangle that gave rise to it,” concluded the NJLJ Editorial Board.
In what could well be the final ruling on the matter, the NJ Supreme Court decided that the guilty verdict cannot stand.
“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, no reasonable jury could find beyond a reasonable doubt that Lodzinski purposefully or knowingly caused Timothy’s death,” reads a summary of the opinion written by Justice Barry Albin.
“Even if the evidence suggested that Timothy did not die by accident, no testimony or evidence was offered to distinguish whether Timothy died by the negligent, reckless, or purposeful or knowing acts of a person, even if that person were Lodzinski.”
The decision is a major blow to the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office (MCPO), which devoted significant resources to pushing the case against Lodzinski, after finally securing a grand jury indictment in 2014.
Lodzinski, now age 53, was released from the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility on December 28, the same day the Supreme Court handed down its ruling.
She had been held in the Middlesex County Jail since her extradition in 2014, and in state prison since January 5, 2017. She reportedly plans to return to Florida.
According to NJ.com’s Ted Sherman, Lodzinski’s younger brother was disappointed by the decision, and believes his sister had been rightly convicted for killing her son.
“We all know the jury got it right,” said Michael Lodzinski. “Justice Albin and his group believe they have righted some great wrong today but all they did was rob justice from a little boy, shame on them.”
The MCPO declined to state its next steps in the thirty-year-old case. Looking into old cases had been a project championed by former Middlesex County Prosecutor Andrew Carey, who left office in 2019 and was replaced by Yolonda Ciccone in 2020.
Ciccone’s office has declined to comment on the recent decision, after touting the May 26 victory that seemed like the conclusion of the criminal case.
“Prosecutor Ciccone applauds the dogged efforts of the law enforcement community,” reads the MCPO’s May 26 statement. “She also recognizes the commitment of her predecessors in keeping the pursuit of justice for Timmy a priority, including former Prosecutor Andrew C. Carey who authorized the indictment and arrest of Lodzinski.”
But Lodzinski’s attorneys, Gerald Krovatin and David W. Fassett, vowed the fight was not yet over, and were ultimately vindicated in what now appears to be the final ruling in the matter.
“One might assume that a tie should go to the defendant, consistent with the presumption of innocence and the prosecution’s burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but that is not the case today,” the attorneys said.
“We shall explore all further alternatives available to Michelle to right this ‘miscarriage of justice,’ including an appeal under these circumstances to the United States Supreme Court and appropriate applications to the federal courts.”
Lodzinski first reported to authorities that Wiltsey was missing at around 7:30 p.m. on May 25, 1991 at John F. Kennedy Memorial Park. She said she turned her back on him to buy a soda.
An alert went out, reporting that Timothy Wiltsey was last seen wearing a red shirt, red knee length shorts, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Sneakers.
Through the night, and for days to come, authorities searched the area, sometimes using dogs on the ground and helicopters in the air above. However, there was no trace found of Wiltsey anywhere, and, oddly, no one at the carnival recalled seeing him.
The search for the five-year-old continued with hundreds of volunteers helping. A telephone tip-line was also set-up and his photo was printed on milk cartons. The case was featured on the Fox Television show “America’s Most Wanted.”
By summer, Lodzinski changed her story significantly, telling police that a woman she knew by the name of Ellen was at the carnival with a small girl and two men, and that “Ellen” had agreed to watch Timothy while she went to buy a soda. She said that, when she returned, “Ellen,” Timothy Wiltsey, and the others were gone.
Lodzinski said that she did not previously mention this to authorities because she was scared that she would have gotten into trouble for leaving her son with someone she didn’t know all that well. She had stated that she recognized “Ellen” from a bank where she once worked as a teller.
She changed her story once again in a June 13, 1991 statement to the New Jersey State Police, saying that one of the men accompanying Ellen came up behind her near her car, holding her at knifepoint and making threatening comments about her son before abducting him.
Lodzinski stated that the kidnapper indicated that she might get her son back in a month and that she might get a call from him. Lodzinski told authorities she was afraid to previously state this, afraid for her son’s safety.
Despite her ever-changing accounts, Lodzinski avoided prosecution and remained free, but her strange behavior continued for years to come.
In January 1994, Lodzinski falsely claimed she had been abducted by two men claiming to be FBI agents, after she left her car running with the door open outside her home in the Colonia section of Woodbridge. She turned up in Detroit, where she admitted to making it all up.
It appeared she may have been attempting to dodge a subpoena in a criminal case related to a Union County Police Officer who was under investigation for illegally running searches of license plate numbers for her.
The officer was never charged, as a grand jury failed to indict him. But in August 1994, Lodzinski was arrested for lying to FBI, and accused of printing up phony FBI business cards.
In 1995, she was sentenced to six months on house arrest and was required to undergo counseling after she pleaded guilty to making false statements. She never explained why she attempted the inter-state abduction ruse.
Despite his remains being discovered, a cause of death was never established for Timothy Wiltsey and no one was charged with the murder for decades until July 2014, when a grand jury handed up an indictment for murder.
On August 6, 2014, the day Wiltsey would have turned 29 years old, Lodzinski was arrested in Florida and charged with her son’s murder, some 23 years after she reported him missing.
Judge Dennis Nieves presided over the 2016 trial, which saw testimony from Wiltsey’s father, and many other witnesses.
The jury foreman had to be replaced after it was discovered he had been doing his own research into the case, one reason that Lodzinski’s attorneys asked for a mistrial. Jurors are only supposed to base their decisions on the information presented in court.
Lodzinski did not testify during the eight-week trial. She has never admitted any connection to her son’s death.
Her niece, who used to babysit Wiltsey, identified a blanket found near his remains as one she recognized from visits to Lodzinski’s home. This was framed by the prosecution as the key piece of testimony, a “smoking gun” that led investigators to try to make the case after decades of declining to press it.
Other witnesses also identified the blanket as the same one from the home, but it didn’t prove Lodzinski’s involvement in his death.
Nevertheless, Lodzinski was found guilty of murder on May 18, 2016. Attempts by her attorneys to secure a new trial or to have the guilty verdict thrown out based on insufficient evidence were rejected by Nieves and a higher court.
Lodzinski’s attorneys appealed the case, and on August 7, 2019, the appeal was denied by a three-judge panel that ruled “there was available proof to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Timothy’s death was neither suicidal nor an accident, but rather he was the victim of homicide.”
That ruling was the one that Lodzinski’s attorneys challenged before the State Supreme Court.
On October 27, 2020, Lodzinski’s attorney, along with the Middlesex County Prosecutor Office’s officials, spoke via remote videoconference before the New Jersey Supreme Court. Nearly a year later, on October 25, 2021, the motion to reconsider was heard in person at the Hughes Justice Complex in Trenton.
The Supreme Court took the next two months to prepare its decision, ultimately throwing out the conviction in the latest twist in a decades-long drama that continues to shock the public.
Had the Supreme Court upheld her sentence, Lodzinski would not have become eligible for parole until August 4, 2044.