YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: “Tell the kids I love them, Monica,” Charles Leaf shouted to his wife as Bergen County Sheriff’s officers led him from a Hackensack courtroom moments after jurors this afternoon convicted the Emmy-winning former Fox 5 investigative reporter of sexually assaulting a 4-year-old girl and of possessing child pornography on his home computer in Wyckoff.
Leaf, 44, briefly flinched ( photo above ), the corners of his mouth turning down tightly, as jurors returned the decisions following a little more than five hours of deliberations over two days.
Monica Leaf, who sat in the gallery throughout the entire trial, put her head down.
Superior Court Judge James J. Guida revoked Leaf’s bail over the protests of defense attorney Brian Neary, and set a June 6 sentencing date. Bergen County Sheriff’s officers then handcuffed Leaf and took him to the Bergen County Jail.
“It was a long process to get through this trial. And the trial itself was quite lengthy,” Assistant Bergen County Prosecutor Kenneth Ralph told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “The state’s evidence was thoroughly reviewed and tested.
“We appreciate the time and effort the jury put in at arriving at this fair and just verdict.”
Defense attorney Emile Lisboa, in turn, told CLIFFVIEW PILOT : “It’s a scary day when you have a witness who says it didn’t happen, and a tape that’s erased, and the defendant is convicted anyway.”
The girl, now 8, was the first witness to testify in the trial when it began on Jan. 7.
Showing considerable composure, she told jurors that Leaf never molested her and that the allegations she made two years ago were fed to her by her nanny.
Ralph, during his summation last week, called her a victim of “outside influences” who counseled her to lie on the stand.
“You can’t blame a little girl” for lying in what Ralph said was an effort to make the whole situation go away and return to her family, the prosecutor said. “But that is not the reality.”
Ralph contended that the defense team’s insistence that nanny Weronika Karwowska concocted the story and coached the child “makes no sense.”
He called the girl “weak, sad and helpless” and said she “betrayed [Leaf] by telling the secret he told her to keep.”
The only outside influence, Neary contended, came from prosecutor’s investigators who lengthened the forensic interview of the girl from a law-enforcement standard 20 to 25 minutes for a child of her age to nearly 90 minutes.
Neary also pointed to a 21-minute gap in the video of that interview, after which the girl changes her story at the apparent prompting of the investigator.
An emotional Leaf was moved to tears several times during the trial — and remained steadfast and insistent on the stand that he was innocent. Throughout the proceedings, he carried tokens from his children, including a Minecraft warrior sent by his son for good luck.
The jurors endured a bit in just over a month — 21 days of which were in trial.
One of the original 16 was hit by a car, two suffered deaths in their immediate families and a fourth was dismissed after telling fellow panelists he’d already made up his mind while complaining about the length of the trial.
At one point there was a lengthy discussion of continuing with only 11 jurors because yet another member of the panel had vacation plans. The possibility of a two-week break was raised, but the conflict with the juror was quickly resolved.
Two trial days were cancelled by snow, another by a flooded courthouse, and three others had already been cut short by the weather.
Those testifying besides the girl, the nanny and Leaf himself included his father-in-law, who flew from Poland to tell the jurors in Hackensack that child pornography found on a desktop computer seized from the family room of the Leaf home in Wyckoff was his.
The jurors began deliberating just after 1 o’clock yesterday. An hour later, they asked to see replays of portions of an investigator’s interview with the girl.
That took about an hour, after which they resumed deliberating for another two, finishing at 5 p.m.
They picked up again at 9:30 this morning, then called for a clarification of the legal definitions of “contact” and “body” around 11 a.m.
Guida said there is no legal definition of body, other than the common meaning.
Contact, he told them, could be any touching by one person of an intimate body part of another — provided it was intended “to degrade or humiliate the victim, or sexually gratify the actor.”
Roughly an hour and a half after their questions were answered, the jurors announced that they’d reached a verdict.
They found him guilty of all charges — aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault, child endangerment, possession of child pornography and tampering with evidence.
The most serious charge of aggravated sexual assault — in a word: rape — carries up to 20 years in prison, followed by lifelong parole as a Megan’s Law offender.
STORY / PHOTOS: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter
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