Defendant’s Rights vs. Victim’s Rights: Who Wins

On January 10, 2013, Guiseppe Tedesco, a 27-year old Hopatcong man, was found guilty of the murder of 22-year old Alyssa Ruggieri. During the month-long trial that took place before a jury in the Sussex County Courthouse, the State alleged that Tedesco shot Ruggieri six times in her Hopatcong home after she rebuffed his romantic advances. In response, Tedesco, who testified on his own behalf, claimed that the killing was in self-defense. He maintained that the March 27, 2010 shooting occurred when he and Ruggieri fell down the stairs in her home, purportedly while the two were struggling for his gun. In finding him guilty, it was clear that the jury didn’t accept Tedesco’s claim.

Having rejected a plea deal that would have subjected him to 30 years in New Jersey State Prison, the conviction now exposes Tedesco to a term of life imprisonment plus 20 years. His sentencing was originally scheduled for Wednesday, March 20, 2013 before the Honorable N. Peter Conforti, J.S.C., but has been stayed pending resolution of an issue of first impression that has been raised by Tedesco’s attorney. Specifically, Tedesco is seeking to absent himself from sentencing, despite the wishes of the victim’s family that he be present.

New Jersey Court Rule 3:21-4 permits defendants to waive their right to be present at sentencing. In this case, the Supreme Court of New Jersey will have to decide whether that rule should be trumped by the Crime Victim’s Bill of Rights (incorporated into the New Jersey Constitution), which grants victims and/or their families the right to address the court at sentencings of defendants.

The legal nuance is that the Crime Victim’s Bill of Rights does not grant victims and/or their families the right to address defendants personally at sentencing. Rather, the Bill of Rightsonly grant victims and/or their families the right to address the court. However, in the rulings thus far by the Trial Division and the Appellate Division, the judiciary appears to be extending that right – both the Trial Division and the Appellate Division have ordered Tedesco to appear for his sentencing, despite his waiver, so that he may hear the impact statements prepared by Michele Ruggieri, the victim’s mother, and other family members. In the Appellate Division’s holding, the Honorable Anthony Parrillo, J.A.D. wrote that Tedesco “may not use the waiver process to diminish in any way the victim’s well-recognized right to meaningfully participate in the criminal justice system.”

The issue clearly pits the rights of a defendant against those of a victim – the Supreme Court of New Jersey will now decide who wins. Oral argument has been scheduled for late April and a decision will likely be issued shortly thereafter.

For more information, see the Star-Ledger article entitled, “Appeals court upholds ruling to have Hopatcong killer hear victims’ statements.”

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