A body inside a wall, DNA that freed a lifer — all in a day’s work for longtime NJ prosecutor

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Robert Bernardi has seen too many bodies, including one that was wrapped in plastic and sealed behind a  wall inside a Philadelphia rowhouse.       

“That was a scene right out of Edgar Allan Poe,” the Burlington County prosecutor said recalling that hot August day in 2001 when he was at the shore and received a call about the discovery of the remains of  Kimberly Szumski, a Cinnaminson, N.J., mother of two who had been missing for three months.  Later, he watched as investigators removed cinderblocks and then the body.

When Bernardi retired Friday, he was the longest serving county prosecutor in New Jersey.  In an interview a week earlier, he reflected on nearly two decades of service as a top law enforcement official. 

Over the years he had tangled with the Innocence Project of New York over a murder conviction that was reversed due to DNA evidence and with Amnesty International over two deaths and alleged inhumane conditions at the county jail in Mount Holly.  He also fought with courts that decided the law and order prosecutor had gone too far in some cases, and with county politicians who wouldn’t give his staff a raise for years, making his assistants the lowest paid in the state.

Bernardi also supervised thousands of criminal cases, which led to an average of 1,200 indictments and about 50 trials a year.  Many criminals, including murderers, were locked up on his watch and remain incarcerated, he said.    

“It’s been a great run, 17 years and 10 months,” he said, in his Mount Holly office where he had overseen a staff of 150.   “I’m 67, I didn’t want to get carried out on my shield,” the grandfather of two said, mentioning he was looking forward to more golf.  Less than 12 hours earlier, there was a homicide in which a Pemberton man was found shot in the head.

Gov. Christie, in a statement, called Bernardi “an extraordinary leader… A voice of justice and reason in the state” shortly after the governor named his senior deputy chief counsel, Scott A. Coffina, of Marlton, to replace Bernardi.

A Republican from Mount Laurel, Bernardi was first appointed by former Gov. Christie Whitman and was a holdover after his latest five-year term expired in December. 

The Kimberly Szumski case was among the most memorable, Bernardi said, recalling how her husband, Thomas, was found dead of an overdose before her body was discovered.  Bernardi said Szumski had killed his wife, but luckily an informant had just told detectives about the basement where Szumski had done some construction work.    

Also memorable was the single case that Bernardi had tried personally – the matter of John Denofa, a  Bucks County businessman who was found guilty of killing an exotic dancer and tossing her to her death from the Turnpike Bridge in 2002. 

Bernardi remembered how he and the former Bucks County prosecutor had argued over who should handle the sensational case since the attack occurred in Pennsylvania and the body was found along the shoreline in New Jersey.   

After he was convicted, Denofa filed several appeals and recently filed another motion to reduce his sentence of 30 years to life in prison.  But Bernardi said the sentence has remained intact.

The case of Larry Peterson was thornier.  Peterson was exonerated by DNA evidence and freed in 2006 after he served 18 years in prison after he was convicted of murder in the strangling of a Pemberton woman. 

Bernardi bristled when asked if he had any regrets about that case.  He had opposed the DNA testing and it took Peterson seven years to get a judge to order the tests that opened the door for him to prove his innocence.  The tests determined that microscopic hairs and semen found on the body of the murder victim did not belong to Peterson.   

“We dealt with far too much resistance from Bernardi in terms of getting the DNA testing,” said Vanessa Potkin, an attorney with the Innocence Project who handled the Peterson case.  “Since then I’m sure we’ve had over 100 exonerations if not 200.” 

She said that more prosecutors are now “recognizing they have a role in finding out the truth and in  taking an active role in exonerating innocent persons instead of digging in their heels to maintain a conviction.”   

Potkin said that the jury heard false evidence, that the hairs found on the victim belonged to Peterson, and this was critical since he had not confessed and there was no other forensics “placing him at the scene.”  She said she hoped “there was a change in (Bernardi’s) heart about the Larry Peterson case and that he would do it differently now.”

But Bernardi said that, in retrospect, he still believes he was right when he considered retrying the case and fought the DNA testing.

 “We did everything we were supposed to do in a professional manner to investigate and determine whether we would prosecute Larry Peterson again… The DNA didn’t 100 percent say he couldn’t have done it…. The gripe was we left him in jail, but we had an obligation to the victim and the victim’s family to make sure that Mr. Peterson was not involved,” he said. 

The other controversy Bernardi faced involved the deaths of two Burlington County Jail inmates, one in December 2013 and the other two months later.  The human rights group Amnesty International had asked Bernardi to investigate to see if there was any criminal negligence by jail officials or staff. 

Bernardi said he found there was no wrong-doing, but Amnesty International officials later said the details of the report he gave them about the death of a sick, frail homeless man led to more questions and concerns that he was “left to die.”  In the interview, Bernardi said that was not the case.     

While most of the convictions obtained by Bernardi’s office were upheld on appeal, a few were reversed by the state Supreme Court for prosecutorial overreach.

In the Marie Hess case, Bernardi said the judges erred when they ruled in 2011 that the prosecutor should not have restricted her right to raise the defense of Battered Woman Syndrome during her sentencing after she confessed to killing her husband, James Hess, a Burlington Township patrolman.  

“The supreme court got it wrong..  She confessed.  We are here to serve victims, people dragged into the system without any choice… They are the ones who are forgotten,” he said.

Kevin Walker, a public defender who represented Hess, said that Bernardi overall was “tough but fair.”  But in the Hess case, he said that Hess was “clearly an abused woman…I’m  not trying to justify what happened, but the law acknowledges the circumstances with which she had to deal with on a daily basis and these were mitigating factors that had to be considered at sentencing.”  

Ray Milavsky, who was Bernardi’s first assistant prosecutor since the beginning, said the office handled many “cases that had very fascinating issues” and dealt with them in a professional manner.  The two met when they were assistant prosecutors in Camden County in the the 1980s and they became longtime friends.

The biggest challenge for Bernardi, Milavsky said, was dealing with inadequate staff.  “We have a dedicated group of individuals, but to make it work ideally, there has to be more resources,” he said.

Bernardi, a past president of the County Prosecutors Association of  New Jersey, had pushed to get the county Freeholder Board to hire more staff and also to approve raises for his assistant prosecutors, who at one time were the lowest paid in the state.  They had not been granted raises between 2008-2012 and some had left to join the Camden County prosecutor’s office and other offices that were paying more competitive wages.  

During that period, the assistant prosecutors were making nearly $10,000 to $20,000 less than the statewide average of $91,000. 

Bernardi, who earned $165,000 a year in his role as prosecutor, said that the “bleeding” of his office and cutbacks reduced his staff, which went from 39 prosecutors to 34.  He said 41 assistants are needed to do the job well. 

When Bernardi walked through his office, the assistants greeted him with “Hello Sir.”  

“Staffing is an issue,” said Bernardi, said, adding that recent bail reforms have  also increased the workload.  “We’re treading water.” 

But that may be a task for the new prosecutor to address.  That and a backlog that is growing, he said.

Still, Bernardi said that being prosecutor was “wonderful, the best experience of my life, and an honor.”  When he was appointed to his first five-year term, he had expected it “would be just a five-year hitch.”

Bernardi said that he plans to offer his services to municipalities that may need to hire hearing officers in police disciplinary matters.  “I would like to kick back a little,” he said, “but I would like to do this part-time.”

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