Kill someone in Essex County, N.J., and chances are you'll get away it. That was the outcome in 637 murders over a recent six-year period in the state's deadliest county, a Newark Star-Ledger analysis has found. From 1998 through 2003, fewer than half the murders in Essex County resulted in a conviction. Even when killers were convicted, only one in four received the legislatively mandated 30-year minimum, largely due to plea bargains. Former Gov. Richard Codey, a lifelong Essex County resident, calls it the “nonexistent justice system. We can't talk about it privately anymore. We've got to admit it publicly: Hey, there's something wrong here that doesn't exist anywhere else in the state.”
Police and prosecutors blame rising gang violence, a changing inner-city culture, tight budgets, and the proliferation of guns. The Star-Ledger,also found a series of glaring deficiencies in the criminal justice system. They included police and proseecutors unable to protect witnesses from intimidation; frequent cases built around a single eyewitnesss or around witnesses so unreliable that they had little credibility with juries; An undermanned and poorly supervised unit that often overlooked key evidence at murder scenes, and homicide investigators handling caseloads far higher than in other urban counties. As a result, they often rushed to judgment or ignored information that pointed to other suspects. “That strikes me as shockingly inadequate for the people of Essex County,” said Stephen Taylor, who headed the county's homicide unit in the mid-1990s and is now an assistant U.S. attorney in Newark. The Star-Ledger presents case studies illustrating the problems.