TRENTON – Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal today announced several initiatives to strengthen confidence in the criminal justice system. These initiatives follow a recent decision by the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office (PCPO) that it would not seek the retrial of Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee, who were convicted in 1996 of murdering Tito Merino but whose convictions were vacated by a New Jersey Superior Court judge in 2017 following the discovery of exculpatory evidence.
The Attorney General’s Office will convene a panel, led by the Honorable Virginia Long, former Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, to examine whether the Office of the Attorney General should create two new statewide units: a “cold case unit,” which would attempt to solve old crimes using new technology and other investigative tools, and a “conviction review unit,” which would review claims of actual innocence by those convicted of serious crimes. The panel will make policy recommendations about whether to create these units and, if so, how they should be structured and staffed. Creating such a panel has been under consideration since the Attorney General took office in January, but its implementation was hastened by PCPO’s decision not to retry Kelley and Lee.
The Attorney General’s Office has retained the Honorable James Zazzali, former Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, to review specific aspects of PCPO’s handling of the Kelley and Lee case. Specifically, Chief Justice Zazzali will examine how PCPO attorneys and staff learned about evidence that was potentially exculpatory as to Kelley and Lee, and how attorneys and staff responded to the discovery of that evidence.
- The Division of Criminal Justice, which investigates and prosecutes criminal matters in the Attorney General’s Office, will take over PCPO’s 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,” said Attorney General Grewal. “Nothing about today’s announcement changes that. I served alongside Prosecutor Valdes when I was Bergen County Prosecutor, and I know that she possesses great integrity and leads her office in the same manner.”
“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,” continued Attorney General Grewal. “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.”
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