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Top NJ court vacates mom’s conviction for killing of preschool son

A woman convicted of murdering her 5-year-old son more than three decades ago will walk free after the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned her conviction.

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) — Michelle Lodzinski gave police conflicting explanations for the disappearance of her first-born son, Timothy Wiltsey, then failed two lie-detector tests, but the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that prosecutors just didn't have enough evidence to prove she killed the boy.

“We may never know the truth about what happened in this case,” Justice Barry Albin wrote for the 4-3 court. “The only issue is whether the evidence — presented in the light most favorable to the prosecution — supports a finding beyond a reasonable doubt that Lodzinski purposely or knowingly caused the death of her son.”

When she reported her son missing in May 1991, Lodzinski told police she had taken Timothy, then age 5, to a park and later a carnival. She let the boy go on some rides, her story went, then stopped at a concession stand to purchase a soda with Timothy a few feet away. The 23-year-old single mother says she turned around to find him missing.

The carnival was shut down, and a manhunt ensued, but police and firefighters could find no trace of the boy, either at the carnival or in Lodzinski’s car parked nearby. Officers reported meanwhile that Lodzinksi looked “like a zombie" during the search.

Police considered her a suspect early on, tapping her phone and searching her apartment, yet no evidence of foul play would materialized.

A new twist emerged about a month later, however, when police reinterviewed Lodzinski and got a different story. Three hours into this interview, Lodzinski claimed her son was taken by two men in the park before they made it to the carnival, with one of the men threatening to hurt Timothy if she did not stay away.

Lodzinski’s story changed a third time the next day. In this story, Lodzinski told police that four people — two men, a woman whom Lodzinski claimed to recognize from her job as a bank teller, and that woman’s child — took Timothy at knifepoint from the carnival.

Nearly a year after his disappearance, a wildlife enthusiast fount Wiltsey’s skeletal remains and one of his sneakers in a wooded area near where his mother once worked as a secretary. With no leads, the case went dormant for two decades.

By the time the case was reopened in 2011, Lodzinski had moved to Florida and raised two children. She was charged with murder in 2014 and convicted two years later after a former babysitter and estranged niece of Lodzinski identified a blue blanket that had been found near Timothy’s remains. Police said the blanket, which other babysitters claimed to remember seeing in Lodzinski’s apartment at the time, undermined the story that Timothy had gone to the carnival.

The medical examiner on the case testified in Lodzinski's 28-day trial that Timothy had died by homicide, but he could not offer an opinion on whether it was negligent, reckless, or knowing homicide.

As laid out in Tuesday's opinion from the high court, however, nothing definitive tied Lodzinski to the murder. Albin in particular called out the state for linking Lodzinski to the crime with “bootstrapped inferences” based on circumstantial evidence: her inconsistent stories and the possible motive that she was a “struggling mother” who couldn’t bear the burden of Timothy.

Michelle Lozinski, left, listens to her attorney, Gerald Krovatin, during a 2016 Superior Court hearing in New Brunswick, N.J., to get her a new trial. (Keith Muccilli/The Asbury Park Press via AP, Pool, File)

The blue blanket found near Timothy’s remains was located in an area known to be a “dumping ground,” Albin wrote, and the law enforcement agent who located the partially buried blanket pulled it from the ground and shook it before taking pictures, possibly ruining forensic evidence.

During all of the police interrogations, Albin noted, Lodzinski had sobbed and repeatedly said she did not know her son’s whereabouts. She got angry only once, when pressed on her conflicting stories. Albin noted that a jury could find Lodzinski had been deceptive with police and that her conflicting stories were evidence of guilt. “But the question remains, guilty of what?” he wrote.

In the days prior to Timothy's disappearance, Lodzinski had purchased the boy’s kindergarten graduation gown, a pair of Teenage Mutual Ninja Turtles sneakers, and new clothing. Friends and neighbors had described her as loving and dedicated to her son.

“It is not uncommon for a 23-year-old single mother, raising a child on her own, to have financial and social challenges,” Albin wrote. “That singularly unremarkable scenario hardly indicates a motive to murder one’s child.”

Three of the seven justices hearing the case disagreed, though, writing in a dissent that by overturning Lodzinski’s conviction the high court “undermines the core principle of appellate deference to a jury verdict in a criminal trial and undermines the jury’s role at the heart of our criminal justice system.”

In the 23-page dissent, Justices Anne Patterson, Faustino Fernandez-Vina and Lee Solomon pointed out Lodzinski had neglected to tell police she had once worked near where Timothy’s remains were found and speculated she could have wrapped her son’s dead body in the blue blanket before dumping both in the wooded area.

Attorney Gerald Krovatin, who represented Lodzinski, did not return an email seeking comment. The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office did not immediately offer comment on the ruling.

Lodzinski was originally sentenced to 30 years in prison without the possibility of parole.  

Timothy’s disappearance had caused a national outcry at the time, with more than 50,000 missing posters and the boy’s picture stamped on more than 50,000 direct mail cards, according to press accounts at the time.

The boy’s father, George Wiltsey, had previously told reporters in 2016 that he was happy Lodzinski had been charged with his son’s death.

Other theories had dogged investigators in the case. A former criminal Joseph McShane apparently claimed to have sexually assaulted and killed a child at an event near Atlantic City, but he testified during Lodzinski’s case that he had never been to New Jersey and did not kill Timothy.

In May, the New Jersey Supreme Court had deadlocked over whether to uphold her conviction, writing that the trial judge had made no errors during the case. “In sum, giving the State the benefit of all favorable testimony and reasonable inferences that could be drawn from that testimony, we conclude there was sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant purposefully or knowingly caused Timmy’s death,” the court wrote in that 3-3 ruling.

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