N.J. court: New trial for man convicted in elderly woman's killing

A homeless man who was convicted of aggravated manslaughter in the bludgeoning, stabbing, and strangulation  of a 79-year-old woman in her Paulsboro home in 2012 has been granted a new trial.

A New Jersey appeals panel said in its recent 13-page opinion that the evidence against Samuel K. Davis was “not overwhelming” and that the state Superior Court judge who presided over the trial failed to properly answer a jury question about whether Davis’ “mere presence” at the scene of the March 2012 murder was enough for the jury to convict him.

The jury acquitted Davis of murder and weapons charges but found him guilty of aggravated manslaughter in the death of Thirza Sweeten, a retired nurse.

Davis, 50, was moved to the Salem County Jail this week to await a new trial in the Gloucester County courthouse. No date has been set.  Davis was previously incarcerated at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton after being sentenced in 2015 to life without parole.

His DNA was not found on the golf club used in the bludgeoning or on the telephone wire used in the strangulation, the appeals court noted in its decision.  Another man’s DNA was detected on the telephone cord.  The exact cause of death was not determined by the medical examiner, but the use of both instruments and a knife — which was not forensically tested — all contributed to the death, the decision said.

A bloodstain found on Davis’ pant leg contained Sweeten’s DNA, but the defense argued that it could have come from cross-contamination when all the evidence was gathered.  Had Davis killed Sweeten, there would have been much more blood on Davis’ clothing, the defense said.

Lisa Montalto, one of Sweeten’s two daughters, had no comment on the appeals court ruling.

Montalto had testified that her brother, Barry Sweeten, lived with her mother and had “a history of drug abuse and had people coming in and out of the house,” the appeals panel opinion said.   Barry Sweeten had told detectives he was a drug runner and frequently let friends in and out through his bedroom window, the opinion said.

At the time of the murder, Barry Sweeten had been in a hospital after suffering a heart attack.  He died 11 months after his mother.

The night of the murder, a neighbor had stopped in to see if Thirza Sweeten had taken her medication.  The neighbor reported that before she left the house, she heard a thump from Barry Sweeten’s bedroom and saw Davis standing outside the window.  She said she ordered him to go away and told him Barry Sweeten was not home.

The next day, Montalto found her mother’s body in the doorway between a front bedroom and the living room.

During nearly two days of deliberations, the jury had handed the judge a note: “Do charges include the suspect’s presence at the time of the crime, without placing the weapon in his hand?” the appeals opinion said.  “The court interpreted the question to mean defendant ‘was there, (but) someone else did it” and heard legal arguments on how to respond to the jury.

The defense argued that the judge was required to “forcefully convey to the jury that (defendant) could not be found guilty… unless it was convinced that Sweeten’s death was caused by (defendant’s) own conduct and not by the conduct of another.”  The prosecutor said such jury instruction was inappropriate because Davis had not been charged as an accomplice.

State Superior Court Judge Kevin Smith told the jury he could not comment on the evidence, but he reminded the jurors that the “state bears the burden of proof … beyond a reasonable doubt” and encouraged them to reread the instructions he had provided to them earlier, according to the appellate decision.  He also said the jurors had to decide “whether the crimes charged in the indictment were committed by the defendant.”

The appeals panel said that was insufficient.  The panel cited case law that said “when a jury requests a clarification, the trial court is obligated to clear the confusion … beyond rereading the original charge.”

Judges Ellen Koblitz and Garry Rothstadt made up the appeals panel.

Public Defender Richard O’Brien, who represented Davis, did not return a call for comment.

Bernie Weisenfeld, a spokesman for Gloucester County Prosecutor Sean Dalton, said the case would be retried.