UPDATE: A New Jersey appeals court today overturned the 2011 conviction of a former Army major and Special Forces member for pushing his wife 120 feet to her death from the Rockefeller Lookout in Englewood Cliffs 22 years ago — and sent the case back to Hackensack for a retrial.
“The state’s evidence was by no means overwhelming,” the three-judge Appellate Division panel said in its decision.
The judges also ruled 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.”
Jurors three years ago found Stephen Scharf guilty of murdering Jody Ann Scharf after 2 1/2 days of deliberations, without requesting much in the way of review of testimony or evidence.
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.
That the case was cracked and Scharf convicted are amazing outcomes in themselves. 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.
But, 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 ( SEE: A case oddity ).
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 eights years ago 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.”
RELATED: Stephen Scharf packed wine, cheese, crackers — and a clawhammer — for a night out with his wife, a Bergen County detective told “Dateline NBC.” But he didn’t use it and instead “went to Plan B,” he says of what had been a nearly 20-year-old cold case. CLICK HERE ….
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.
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