The ruling aims to clarify a 2020 state law that requires incarcerated people to show they are physically incapacitated and pose no public safety risk in order to secure compassionate release from prison. (Photo by Darrin Klimek/Getty Images)
Two years after legislators rewrote New Jersey’s compassionate release law to free more gravely ill inmates, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Monday that judges still have discretion to deny release if “extraordinary aggravating factors” justify keeping inmates jailed.
Incarcerated people convicted of particularly heinous, cruel, or depraved offenses, those whose victims were vulnerable because of disability or age, and those whose crimes targeted government or law enforcement should face tougher scrutiny in their bids for release, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote in the unanimous opinion.
“Absent one or more extraordinary aggravating factors, inmates who are otherwise eligible should be granted compassionate release,” Rabner wrote.
Judges also must consider the harm suffered by victims in deciding release, even in cases where inmates have proven, as the law requires, that they’re physically incapacitated and pose no public safety risk, Rabner noted.
“Victim testimony is relevant to the ultimate question whether to grant compassionate release,” he wrote. “Otherwise, testimony from victims would be little more than a potentially cathartic but hollow exercise; victims could speak, but their words would have little if any effect.”
Monday’s decision was the second time the court sought to clarify the new law, which took effect in February 2021 after Gov. Phil Murphy signed it.
The old law limited who could apply for compassionate release, barring people convicted of murder, kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault, and other serious crimes. It consequently was rarely used, with fewer than five people using it to gain release between 2015 and 2019.
Legislators replaced it with a new law that applies to all incarcerated people, regardless of what offense landed them behind bars. Besides freeing debilitatingly ill inmates, the new law was intended to reduce the prison population and cut health care costs in a financially strapped system.
The new law also transferred the power to grant release from the state parole board to the courts, a change that has resulted in several court challenges as judges try to hew to legislators’ intent.
Last August, the Supreme Court ruled in one challenge that gravely ill inmates seeking freedom under the law don’t have to prove they are wholly, permanently physically incapacitated to get out of prison.
In this week’s opinion, the court consolidated the challenges of two incarcerated people who petitioned for release because they are permanently bedridden and require round-the-clock care:
- A woman identified as A.M. with end-stage multiple sclerosis, who was sentenced to 40 years in prison for fatally shooting her husband in 2010.
- Eddie L. Oliver, aka Al-Damany Kamau, with maladies not detailed in the ruling, who was condemned to prison for life for gunning down Newark Detective John Sczyrek in an Essex County courthouse to prevent him from testifying in his brother’s and cousin’s criminal cases. Oliver, using a gun a probation employee smuggled into the courthouse for him, also shot and wounded two other officers, attempted to kill a third, and planned to kill the judge, according to the ruling.
In A.M.’s case, a trial judge denied her petition for release, but an appellate judge reversed that decision and approved her release. Rabner affirmed the appellate ruling.
In Oliver’s case, a trial judge declared Oliver “committed perhaps one of the most heinous, brutal, bold, cold-blooded premeditated murders ever committed in Essex County” and denied his bid for release. Oliver appealed and Rabner sided with the trial judge, saying his crimes show the type of extraordinary aggravating circumstances that justify his continued incarceration.
The ruling does not identify A.M. by name, it says, because courts cannot identify defendants in compassionate release proceedings if they are detailing their medical conditions. It identifies Oliver because of the extensive media coverage of his case but limits the description of his medical condition.
The Office of the Public Defender represented Oliver and A.M.
“We’re pleased the court recognized that the impetus of the Compassionate Release Act was to increase the number of individuals granted compassionate release,” Assistant Deputy Public Defender Alison Gifford said. “We believe that the court’s opinion — which held that extraordinary aggravating circumstances must exist to deny release to those who meet statute’s medical and public safety criteria — will help carry out the Legislature’s intent and permit our state’s sickest inmates to be released.”
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