The state Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction of Michelle Lodzinski, 54, a mother accused to killing her 5-year-old son in 1991.
It was a stunning turnaround in one of the state’s most infamous cold cases, which had remained unresolved for years even though Lodzinski was considered a prime suspect from the outset after she gave inconsistent accounts of what happened on the day Timothy Wiltsey was last seen.
Justices voted 4-3 concluding that there was not enough evidence to say Lodzinski was guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” and the jury in the nearly 30-year-old case was wrong to convict the mother of murdering Timothy Wiltsey.
In May 1991, Lodzinski, then a 23-year-old single mother, reported to police her son disappeared when she turned her back to buy a soda at a carnival in John F. Kennedy Memorial Park in Sayreville.
An extensive search of the carnival and surrounding area by Sayreville police officers and firefighters failed to locate the Kindergarten student from South Amboy.
Lodzinski described Timothy as sporting a crew cut and wearing a t-shirt and Ninja Turtles sneakers. She also gave conflicting accounts about the incident ai statements to Sayreville Police.
In October 1991, a man walking near the Raritan Center in Edison found a child’s left sneaker that matched the description of Timothy’s clothes, and he turned the sneaker over to police.
During an April 1992 search of the Raritan Center, authorities found a Ninja Turtles right sneaker; a pillowcase; eleven bones from a child, including a skull and partial remnants of clothing; a balloon; and a ten-foot-by-three-foot blue blanket.
Dental records revealed that the skull was Timothy’s. No trace evidence was found on the blanket or pillowcase, and neither Lodzinski nor her parents expressed recognition of the blanket.
In 1992, the Prosecutor’s Office declined to bring charges against Lodzinski.
Lodzinski relocated to Florida, became employed as a paralegal, and raised two sons. She kept photographs of Timothy and let her children know they had a brother.
In 2014, police arrested Lodzinski, then 46, and charged her with Timothy’s murder.
During her 2016 trial and on appeal, Lodzinski’s lawyers argued that no forensic evidence tied her to the blanket and that prosecutors didn’t produce enough evidence to show Lodzinski purposely caused the boy’s death.
Her trial at the Middlesex County Courthouse lasted eight weeks and included 68 witnesses.
A cause of death couldn’t be determined because Wiltsey’s body had deteriorated in the time between when he died and when the body was found.
“After reviewing the entirety of the evidence and after giving the state the benefit of all its favorable testimony and all the favorable inferences drawn from that testimony, no reasonable jury could find beyond a reasonable doubt that Lodzinski purposefully or knowingly caused Timothy’s death,” said Justice Barry Albin, who wrote the majority opinion.
“Even if the evidence suggested that Timothy did not die by accident, no testimony or evidence was offered to distinguish whether Timothy died by the negligent, reckless, or purposeful or knowing acts of a person, even if that person were Lodzinski,” Albin wrote.
Lodzinski, who in 2016 was sentenced to 30 years in prison without the possibility of parole, was released from the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton Township the same day the state Supreme Court released its ruling.
With Chief Justice Stuart Rabner not participating, the court deadlocked on Lodzinski’s appeal in May, when it issued a controversial 3-3 decision that allowed her 2016 conviction to stand.
In October, the court took the rare step of agreeing to rehear the case, conceding it had made a procedural mistake by ruling on an appellate court decision that had applied an incorrect legal standard.
For the rehearing, Appellate Judge Jose Fuentes was called up to serve as a tiebreaking vote and he cast the deciding vote in favor of acquittal.