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Judge sets $1M bail in retrial of military vet accused of pushing wife off Palisades in Englewood Cliffs

Photo Credit: CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter Mary K. Miraglia
Photo Credit: CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter Mary K. Miraglia
Photo Credit: CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter Mary K. Miraglia

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: A judge in Hackensack today set bail at $1 million for a former Army major and Special Forces member from Washington Township whose conviction for pushing his estranged wife to her death from the Rockefeller Lookout in Englewood Cliffs 22 years ago was overturned.

“There are no changed circumstances” that would warrant bail for 63-year-old Stephen Scharf, Presiding Superior Court Judge Liliana DeAvila-Silebi said.

The judge set an April 7 date for the next court hearing in the case so that defense attorney Ben Malin would have enough time to prepare.

Malin argued for a reduction in bail, saying that his client’s 2011 conviction for pushing 44-year old Jody Ann Scharf 120 feet to her death in September 1992 was unanimously overturned by the three-judge Appellate Division.

Presiding Superior Court Judge Liliana DeAvila-Silebi (STORY / PHOTOS: CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter Mary K. Miraglia)

He called the evidence used to convict Scharf specious and “junk science,” and called him an upstanding member of the community who served in the military for 30 years. Jody Ann Scharf’s death was a “tragic accident,” Malin said.

Assistant Bergen County Prosecutor Wayne Mello argued against a reduction, noting that the nature of the crime could justify a request for an increase in the amount as his office moves toward a re-trial.

DeAvila-Silebi said she doesn’t believe the evidence was flawed.

Jurors three years ago found Stephen Scharf guilty of murdering his wife after 2 1/2 days of deliberations, without requesting much in the way of review of testimony or evidence.

The verdict was overturned, and the case sent back to Bergen for a retrial, she said, because of procedural errors.

The judges found that now-retired Superior Court Judge Patrick Roma should have barred hearsay testimony from friends and a counselor, an error that they said was “clearly capable of producing an unjust result.”

Scharf, whom Roma later sentenced to life in prison, didn’t testify in his own defense, nor was a plea bargain struck with prosecutors. He maintained his innocence at his sentencing, repeating that his wife fell.

Veteran investigators and prosecutors say such crimes are the toughest to solve when there are no witnesses: “He/she slipped” most times is often a sufficient alibi.

In Scharf’s case, jurors considered the circumstantial and forensic evidence was considered overwhelming: Jody Ann Scharf filed for divorce two weeks before her death, and her husband took out a $300,000 insurance policy on her months earlier.

In fact, in a move even veteran prosecutors and judges couldn’t recall ever seeing, an entire grand jury handed up the murder indictment against Scharf.

And although he made sure not to reach a presumption before Scharf’s trial, Assistant Bergen County Prosecutor Wayne Mello told CLIFFVIEW PILOT at the time that, between “the insurance angle and the divorce, you can see the picture that is developing here.”

The Scharf case was sealed by celebrity coroner Michael Baden, who testified that his forensic examination — including the fact that Jody Ann Scharf landed exactly 52 feet out and 30 feet north from the top of the cliff — clearly pointed to murder.

Scharf, who remarried and had another child, protested his innocence during a jailhouse interview with “Dateline NBC” that aired in August 2011.

“I did not kill Jody,” he says, his voice breaking, during the segment. “I did not… I did not. I did not. I didn’t hurt Jody. I didn’t push her. I didn’t cause her to get hurt. I didn’t kill my wife.”

Scharf says he was reconciling with his wife and was taking her to a Manhattan comedy club that Sunday night when they took a detour to the lookout and staked out a ledge overlooking the Bronx.

The ledge was “their place,” a familiar spot to those from the area from which you can see the George Washington Bridge to the south. They’d been there awhile, and the sun had already set, Scharf says, when his wife tried to get up, slipped and fell from the cliff.

His last glimpse of Jody, he says, was her “just standing up and, y’know, and, and, stumbling forward.”

The segment also includes interviews with those close to the case who have supported Scharf, as well as those who said the dogged work of the prosecutor’s detectives finally allowed the slain woman to rest in peace.

As Mello told jurors, Scharf didn’t want a divorce, a custody fight or a split of assets. There was also the life insurance policy, which eventually paid him $73,000.

Stephen Scharf (STORY / PHOTOS: CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter Mary K. Miraglia)

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