TRENTON, N.J. — A New Jersey man convicted of having sex with a 12-year-old girl is to be freed from prison — and cannot be retried — after an appeals court found that “fatal” mistakes made at the trial left the verdicts unintelligible.
The Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court overturned the conviction and 15-year sentence of 37-year-old Dennis Conover, of Manalapan, The Asbury Park Press reports.
Conover’s record also is to be wiped clean.
Conover was indicted on more than 20 charges and convicted of three sexual assault-related counts in May 2014.
His girlfriend, Mary Ellen Deane, was separately convicted of having sex with the same 12-year-old and was sentenced to 15 years. But the appeals court ruling does not affect her case.
The appeals court found in a decision released Monday that in Conover’s case, Superior Court Judge James M. Blaney and prosecutors failed to make clear the specific allegations linked to each charge, leaving jurors to sort it out.
The judges said the trial errors made it impossible to determine which allegations Conover was convicted or acquitted of. “The verdict sheet did not distinguish at all between the identically-worded counts,” the appellate judges wrote.
Because of this uncertainty, they ruled, Conover cannot be retried without violating double jeopardy restrictions.
The court sent the case back to Blaney to dismiss the charges.
The judge did not reply to a request for comment. A trial judge’s many duties include issuing jury instructions to guide jurors during deliberations.
Samuel Marzarella, chief appellate attorney for the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, acknowledged “defects” in the indictment issued by the office, but said the prosecutor is exploring whether to appeal the ruling.
The appeals court ruling referred to the defendant as “D.C.” The newspaper said Marzarella would not confirm that “D.C.” was, in fact, Dennis Conover.
The Press said that, aided by John Paff of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, it traced an indictment number referenced in the “D.C.” appellate court decision to Conover’s 2014 conviction.
And the docket number of Conover’s 2015 appeal also correlates with the appellate court decision.