Conviction for Pushing Wife Off Cliff Restored

     TRENTON, N.J. (CN) — A husband convicted of murdering his wife by pushing her off a cliff at the New Jersey Palisades lost on appeal Monday after claiming testimony against him by the woman’s therapist and friends was hearsay.
     Monday’s New Jersey Supreme Court decision reinstates the murder conviction of Stephen Scharf, who was found guilty in 2011 of pushing his wife Jody off a 12-story scenic cliff overlooking Manhattan in 1992.
     Scharf had always maintained that his wife fell while drunk during a picnic at the precarious hiking trail. However, the timing of divorce filings—made by his wife more than a week earlier—was the crux of prosecutors’ proof of a murder motive.
     Testimony during Scharf’s trial had painted him as an abusive husband whom Jody feared and that his claims they had often gone to the New Jersey Palisades cliff were a lie. After Scharf was convicted, he appealed, saying that testimony against him was hearsay.
     An appeals court reversed his conviction, but New Jersey’s high court disagreed Monday.
     “Whether Jody would have gone alone with [Scharf], willingly, anywhere, let alone to an isolated place, at night, on the cliffs, where she said she had never been and would not go when asked before, makes this evidence highly probative of her state of mind,” Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote in the unanimous opinion.
     Jody fell to her death on Sept. 20, 1992. Police discovered her body that evening after reports that somebody had fallen near Englewood cliffs. The responding officer found Scharf, who said the couple had picnicked there before planning to attend a comedy club in Manhattan later that night. Scharf said the couple had been drinking in their car before going out to a lookout area he described as “their spot.”
     However, according to Scharf, after engaging in “amorous activities,” Jody said she was uncomfortable. When Scharf went to get a blanket and more wine from the car, she toppled off the rock, he said.
     The officers searched the area. Jody’s body was found later that night, and forensics determined her blood alcohol level was 0.12 percent. The medical examiner eventually settled on “could not be determined” as to her cause of death.
     Scharf’s motives became muddled when it was revealed that Jody had filed for divorce nearly two weeks earlier, citing Scharf’s abuse and unfaithfulness. Scharf had also obtained a $500,000 life insurance policy on his wife a year earlier.
     The case was revisited in 2004, and in 2007 the medical examiner amended the cause of death to “homicide,” noting that Jody’s injuries—most of which were to her face—were not consistent with somebody who had fallen off a cliff. The examiner also noted in 2007 that Jody had likely been propelled off the cliff, hitting a tree on her way down.
     During the trial, several of Jody’s friends and acquaintances testified to her fear of her husband, his abusive conduct, and also her fear of heights. Jody’s therapist also testified, saying that Jody had refused Scharf’s earlier invitation to “their spot” in the Palisades and that she had never been to that spot before.
     The court allowed the testimony, noting in the case of the therapist that Jody’s statements to her were “medically necessary for effective treatment” and that the comments were apropos for showing Jody’s feelings while she was being treated for depression.
     One of the witnesses, a neighbor, testified that Jody had told her that Scharf had refused to sign the divorce papers and that he would “see her dead” before he signed them.
     Prosecutors also relied on testimony from Scharf’s son, Jonathan, which apparently changed from the time of Jody’s death when Jonathan was 11 years old to almost two decades later, when Scharf was arrested. Jonathan had testified that his mother had not wanted to go out to dinner alone with Scharf.
     Scharf was convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
     On appeal, Scharf’s attorneys reiterated an argument they made during trial, saying testimony from witnesses who said that Jody had feared Scharf was “highly prejudicial and clearly cumulative.” They also said Jody’s fear of her husband could not be used to infer that Scharf murdered her.
     The New Jersey Appellate Division ruled in Scharf’s favor and reversed his conviction, finding much of the testimony hearsay and irrelevant to the case. The state appealed.
     Monday’s Supreme Court decision found that the testimony was anything but irrelevant, citing other court precedents in North Carolina, Virginia, and South Dakota. The state high court also found that state-of-mind evidence was allowed by the tactics of defense attorneys, who attempted to explain Jody’s death as an accident.
     “A victim’s state-of-mind hearsay statements are relevant to assessments of his or her own actions, and thus such statements can be relevant in the assessment of the truth of another’s stated reasons for conduct that occurred with that victim,” LaVecchia wrote.
     Further, the challenged testimony all related to Jody’s thoughts just before her death, which “provide[d] a direct counter to defendant’s narrative that this was all just an accidental death,” LaVecchia wrote, calling particular attention to the therapist’s testimony that Jody had never before gone to the cliffs with Scharf.
     The Supreme Court did warn that state-of-mind hearsay evidence can and should be restricted in certain cases, but that trial courts should be the gatekeepers of admissibility and the arbiters of jury instruction in such cases.
     Justice Anne Patterson did not participate in the ruling.

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