Murder Conviction Based Upon Hearsay Testimony Reinstated by New Jersey Supreme Court

On September 20, 1992, the police received reports that someone had fallen from a 12-story cliff near the New Jersey Palisades.  They arrived in the area and found Stephen Scharf, who told them they he and his wife, Jody, were having a picnic before going to a comedy club in New York City.  Scharf also stated that they were drinking in their car, and then went to a lookout area described as their “spot”.  Finally, Scharf told the police that while he was getting a blanket and more drinks from their vehicle, Jody fell from the rocks.  Jody’s body was later found, and her blood alcohol content was 0.12.  At that time, the medical examiner could not determine a cause of death.

Other facts undermined Scharf’s story.  Jody was seeking to divorce him, alleging that he was abusive and unfaithful.  Further, at some point within the past year, Scharf had taken out a $500,000 life insurance policy on Jody.  Because of such facts, the case was reviewed again in 2004.  Finding that Jody’s injuries (primarily to her face) were inconsistent with falling off a cliff, the medical examiner changed the cause of death to homicide.  The medical examiner further determined that Jody was thrown from the cliff, and had hit a tree as she dropped down.

During trial, a number of individuals who knew Jody testified that her husband was abusive, and that she was afraid of both him and heights.  Jody was also seeing a therapist who testified that Jody had previously refused to accompany her husband to the cliffs, and that she never visited the area before.  One witness also testified that Jody had informed her that Scharf had refused to sign certain papers related to the pending divorce, and that he would “see her dead” before signing them.  The couple’s son also testified that Jody did not want to go to dinner alone with her husband.

The trial court allowed this testimony.  The jury convicted Scharf of first degree murder, and the court imposed a life term.  Scharf appealed, and the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division reversed his conviction and sentence.  According to the Appellate Division, significant portions of the testimony admitted against Scharf were hearsay and irrelevant.

On appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court reinstated Scharf’s conviction.  The Court found that Jody’s statements qualified as state-of-mind evidence that could be used to evaluate her actions, as well as the truth of Scharf’s description of the events preceding her death.  The challenged statements also related to Jody’s thoughts immediately preceding her death, which countered Scharf’s description of her fall as accidental.

The problematic testimony was clearly objectionable as hearsay, and it is fair to say that nobody anticipated this result from the Supreme Court.  The opinion is important because it highlights the somewhat murky area of state-of-mind evidence.  The Court was certainly aware of these issues, and noted that state-of-mind evidence must be restricted in appropriate cases.  The Court left such decisions – at least in the first instance – to the trial judges, because they are responsible for making threshold determinations as to the admissibility of evidence, and for instructing juries.

James S. Friedman, LLC represents defendants accused of violent crimes including murder, robbery, carjacking and assault.  If you have been charged with a violent crime in any federal or state court located in New Jersey or New York City, contact us immediately.


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