TRENTON (CN) - A man whom DNA evidence has finally tied to a brutal 1976 rape and murder should receive a 10-year sentence, though 1970s sentencing guidelines would have sent him to prison for life, a New Jersey appeals court ruled today.
Though the 17-page decision identifies both the killer and his victim only by their initials, the details align with the Westfield, N.J., murder of 57-year-old Lena Triano.
The investigation into Triano's death went cold for decades until detectives found new DNA evidence that led them to Carlton Franklin, the teenager who used to live next door to Triano.
Franklin was 52 in December 2012 when a juvenile court judge convicted him of Triano's murder nearly four decades before.
Though sentencing guidelines from the time of the murder called for the death penalty or life imprisonment in all cases of first-degree murder, even in cases involving juveniles, state lawmakers loosened that scheme in 1983.
State prosecutors wanted to sentence Franklin under the 1976 laws, but current laws capped Franklin's sentence at 10 years.
New Jersey appealed after Judge Robert Kirsch ultimately imposed the 10-year prison sentence, arguing the state's "savings statute" intended sentencing to have a prospective effect.
Franklin also appealed the ruling, saying he had been denied his right to confront the medical examiner in the case who conducted the autopsy, a violation of the Sixth Amendment.
A three-judge panel of the Appellate Division rejected both appeals Monday.
As for the state's claim, the judges said the savings statute applied to the date of the penalty incurred, not the crime committed.
"A legislative change in the 'penalty for committing an offense - even if the offense was committed prior to the change - would not be hampered by the savings statute because, in that instance, the new law would be given prospective application," Judge Clarkson Fisher Jr. wrote for the court.
Leading into a quotation by New York Court of Appeals Judge Stanley Fuld, Fisher said "a refusal to apply a newer, ameliorative law serves only a vengeful purpose that does no honor to an enlightened society."
As for Franklin's appeal, the court said it was not clear why his attorney did not object to a substitute medical examiner's testimony, but that this forfeited an objection to the issue on appeal.
Franklin's next recourse is to allege poor legal representation, according to the ruling.
The crime's details were grisly. In March 1976 police in Westfield received a call regarding a 57-year-old woman who lived alone. When the police entered Triano's home, they found her hog-tied and face down on her bed with a broken bottle near her head and a venetian-blind cord wrapped around her neck.
An autopsy revealed stab wounds to the woman's neck and left lung, and a vaginal swab revealed sperm. A friend of Triano's testified that she often kept her backdoor unlocked. Some of the fingerprints found at the scene and DNA from cigarette butts in an ashtray matched neither Franklin nor Triano.
The trial judge in the case later determined that Triano was stabbed in the chest. Before she was raped, Triano's attack removed her clothes, put a robe on her and took off her panties. After the assault, he tied her up and left her to die from the stabbing wounds and asphyxiation.
Police had no suspects until the DNA evidence implicated Franklin in 2010.
DNA experts testified that there was only a 40-quadrillion-to-one chance that the DNA found in Triano's underwear belonged to a black man other than Franklin, who was 15 at the time of the attack.Franklin's DNA was already on file from a prison term he served in New Jersey from 1981 to 1997.
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