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Supreme Court: Too Late to Try Man Charged With 1990 Wildwood Rape

Supreme Court: Too Late to Try Man Charged With 1990 Wildwood Rape

By Shay Roddy

Jerry Rosado appeared virtually from the county jail for a hearing in Cape May County Superior Court in 2022.
File Photo
Jerry Rosado appeared virtually from the county jail for a hearing in Cape May County Superior Court in 2022.

TRENTON – A man arrested in connection with a high-profile Wildwood rape and murder that ran cold for decades can’t be tried for the young woman’s 1990 rape, the state Supreme Court has unanimously ruled.

In a one-sentence opinion issued Wednesday, Dec. 13, the state’s high court affirmed an appellate court opinion that it would violate the constitutional rights of defendant Jerry Rosado to try him on the sexual assault charges Cape May County prosecutors filed in April 2022, 32 years after the death of Susan Negersmith.

Prosecutors have never filed murder charges in the case.

Then-20-year-old Negersmith was found dead behind a restaurant; she had been visiting Wildwood for Memorial Day weekend from her home in New York. Her jeans were pulled down around one ankle and her shirt was pushed up and bloodied with a handprint on the chest, according to a 1993 New York Times report.

SUSAN NEGERSMITH (File Photo)

At the time of the incident, sexual assault had a five-year statute of limitations in New Jersey. In May 1995, long before new DNA technology helped prosecutors connect Rosado, of Millville, to the alleged crime, the statute of limitations for a sexual assault prosecution expired.

Ex post facto rights afforded to the accused under both the federal and state constitutions bar prosecutors from trying Rosado or anyone else for the alleged rape, the appellate court found and the Supreme Court affirmed.

The case made its way to the appeals court following a trial court judge’s ruling in August 2022 denying Rosado’s motion to dismiss. The trial court judge, Bernard E. DeLury Jr., agreed to stay the case while the defense appealed.

DeLury was persuaded by the prosecutors’ argument that a 2002 amendment to the law enacted by the Legislature allowed the statute of limitations to restart when new DNA evidence presented itself.

Eventually genetic genealogy, a technology utilized to connect an unknown DNA profile to an individual using the individual’s family tree, helped law enforcement zero in on Rosado. The technology was popularized as a forensic tool for law enforcement after it helped California authorities nab the so-called Golden State Killer in 2018.

In March, an appellate court panel reversed the trial court’s ruling and tossed the case. Rosado, who had been ordered detained prior to trial, was released after about 11 months in the state’s custody.

However, the state then appealed, asking the New Jersey Supreme Court to weigh in. The high court only agrees to hear about 10% of the more than 1,000 cases it annually receives petitions for, according to the state judiciary. It took the Rosado case and heard oral arguments in November. [Editor’s Note: Refer to the link at left for a thorough recounting of both sides’ arguments.]

Jerry Rosado, seated in a wheelchair, and his lawyer, Deputy Public Defender Eric Shenkus, during a hearing in Cape May County Superior Court in 2022. (File Photo)

The Supreme Court agreed in its 6-0 opinion with the three-judge lower court panel’s unanimous determination that once a statute of limitations has run, any opportunity for a prosecution is over.

The amendment to the law was meant to apply to cases in which the statute of limitations had not yet expired, but where time was running out and it needed to be paused or extended for further investigation into evidence presenting itself through novel technologies, the court found.

In 1996, the Legislature extended the limitations period on sexual assaults so it would never expire, but noted only future crimes or cases in which the limitations period had not yet run out would be affected. Negersmith’s case was one year too soon to be preserved under that Legislative action.

Negersmith’s autopsy report contained a page and a half about the injuries she had suffered, including 26 separate wounds on her body, according to the Times report.

However, originally her cause of death was determined by the state medical examiner to be acute alcohol poisoning and exposure, not homicide. Records show her blood alcohol level was 0.285%, which is more than 3.5 times the legal limit to drive in New Jersey.

Because the death was considered accidental and not a crime, law enforcement was initially inhibited from dedicating the resources that would have been customarily available in investigating a homicide.

For years, Negersmith’s family challenged the medical examiner’s findings, incensed that, based on the evidence from the scene, it was not ruled a homicide. Private investigators and attorneys working for the Negersmith family said the evidence from the scene did not prove her death was an accident, but that it was the result of a rape and murder.

In July 1993, the family was successful in having the cause of death changed to homicide, with the state attorney general at the time saying Negersmith died as a result of being smothered. For 30 more years, Negersmith’s family urged the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office not to give up on a prosecution.

While a sexual assault trial is off the table, murder has no statute of limitations. Asked by a Supreme Court justice why Rosado was never charged with that offense, prosecutors responded they weren’t sure they had the evidence to carry all elements of that charge. They remain able to bring a murder charge if the evidence warrants it.

Contact the author, Shay Roddy, at sroddy@cmcherald.com or 609-886-8600, ext. 142.

Reporter

Shay Roddy is a Delaware County, Pennsylvania native who has always spent as much of his summers as he could at the Jersey Shore. He went to Friends’ Central and is a graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

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