A body inside a wall, DNA that freed a lifer — all in a day's work for longtime NJ prosecutor

Burlington County Prosecutor Robert D. Bernardi talks about some of his more interesting cases and what lies ahead for him after his retirement. Bernardi has served nearly 20 years, one of the longest serving county prosecutors in N.J.

Robert Bernardi has seen too many bodies, including one that was wrapped in plastic and sealed behind a wall inside a Philadelphia rowhouse.       

“That was a scene right out of Edgar Allan Poe,” the Burlington County prosecutor said, recalling that August 2001 day when he was at the Shore and received a call about the discovery of the remains of  Kimberly Szumski, a Cinnaminson mother of two who had been missing for three months. Later, he watched investigators remove the cinder blocks and the body.

When Bernardi retired Friday, he was the longest-serving county prosecutor in New Jersey. In an interview a week earlier, he reflected on a career that spanned nearly two decades.  

Over the years, he had tangled with the Innocence Project of New York over a murder conviction that was reversed due to DNA evidence and with Amnesty International over two deaths and alleged inhumane conditions at the county jail in Mount Holly. He also fought with courts that decided the law-and-order prosecutor had gone too far in some cases, and with county politicians who wouldn’t give his staff a raise for years, making his assistants the lowest paid in the state.

Bernardi, 67, supervised thousands of criminal cases that led to about 1,200 indictments and 50 trials a year. Many criminals were locked up on his watch and remain incarcerated, he said.    

“It’s been a great run, 17 years and 10 months,” he said, in his Mount Holly office where he oversaw a staff of 150. The grandfather of two mentioned he was looking forward to more golf. About 12 hours earlier, there was a homicide in Pemberton. 

Gov. Christie, in a statement, called Bernardi “a voice of justice and reason in the state.” Christie named his senior deputy chief counsel, Scott A. Coffina, of Marlton, as the new prosecutor. 

A Republican from Mount Laurel, Bernardi was appointed by Gov. Christie Whitman and was a holdover after his last five-year term expired in December. 

The Kimberly Szumski case was among the most memorable, Bernardi said, recalling how her husband, Thomas, the murder suspect, died of an overdose before her body was discovered. Luckily, an informant had told detectives about the basement where Thomas Szumski had done recent construction work, Bernardi said.    

Also memorable was the case Bernardi had tried personally -- the matter of John Denofa, a Bucks County businessman who was found guilty of killing an exotic dancer and tossing her to her death from the Delaware River Turnpike Bridge in 2002. 

Bernardi said he and the former Bucks County prosecutor had argued over who should handle the sensational case since the attack occurred in Pennsylvania and the body was found in New Jersey.   

After he was convicted, Denofa filed several appeals and a motion to reduce his sentence of 30 years to life in prison. Bernardi said the sentence remains intact.

The case of Larry Peterson was thornier. Peterson was exonerated by DNA evidence and freed in 2006 after he served 18 years in prison after he was convicted of murder in the strangling of a Pemberton woman. 

Bernardi bristled when asked if he had any regrets about that case. He had opposed the DNA testing and it took Peterson seven years to get a judge to order the tests that opened the door for him to prove his innocence. The tests determined that microscopic hairs and semen found on the body of the murder victim did not belong to Peterson.   

Vanessa Potkin, an attorney with the Innocence Project who handled the Peterson case, said, “We dealt with far too much resistance from Bernardi in terms of getting the DNA testing.” She said many prosecutors now recognize "they have a role in finding out the truth and in taking an active role in exonerating innocent persons instead of digging in their heels to maintain a conviction.”   

Potkin said that false evidence was presented to the jury and this was critical since he had not confessed and no other forensics placed him at the scene. She said she hoped “there was a change in [Bernardi’s] heart about the Larry Peterson case and that he would do it differently now.”

But Bernardi said that, in retrospect, he still believes he was right to consider retrying the case after the forensic evidence was disqualified. He said his office reached back out to witnesses who had testified Peterson told them he committed the crime. One of them later recanted and one was in drug rehabilitation.     

“We did everything we were supposed to do in a professional manner to investigate and determine whether we would prosecute Larry Peterson again," Bernardi said. "The DNA didn’t 100 percent say he couldn’t have done it. ... The gripe was we left him in jail, but we had an obligation to the victim and the victim’s family to make sure that Mr. Peterson was not involved.” 

The other controversy Bernardi faced involved the deaths of two Burlington County Jail inmates, one in December 2013 and the other two months later. The human rights group Amnesty International asked Bernardi to investigate to see if there was any criminal negligence by jail officials or staff. 

Bernardi found no wrongdoing, but Amnesty International officials later said that the report included details of the death of a sick and frail homeless man and led to more questions and concerns that he had been “left to die.” In the interview, Bernardi said that was not the case.     

While most of the convictions obtained by Bernardi's office were upheld on appeal, a few were reversed by the state Supreme Court for prosecutorial overreach.

In the Marie Hess case, Bernardi said the judges erred when they ruled in 2011 that the prosecutor should not have restricted her right to raise the defense of battered woman syndrome during her sentencing after she confessed to killing her husband, James Hess, a Burlington Township patrolman.  

“The Supreme Court got it wrong. ... She confessed. We are here to serve victims, people dragged into the system without any choice. …  They are the ones who are forgotten,” he said.

Kevin Walker, a public defender who represented Hess, said that Bernardi overall was "tough but fair." But in the Hess case, he said that Hess was "clearly an abused woman" and that should have been considered at sentencing." He said that her situation "compelled her to do what she did."

Ray Milavsky, who was Bernardi’s first assistant prosecutor since the beginning, said the office handled many “cases that had very fascinating issues” and had dealt with them appropriately. The two met when they were assistant prosecutors in Camden County in the  1980s and they became longtime friends.

The biggest challenge for Bernardi, Milavsky said, was dealing with low staff levels. “We have a dedicated group of individuals, but to make it work ideally, there has to be more resources,” he said.

Bernardi had lobbied the county Freeholder Board to hire more staff and to approve raises for the assistants. They went without raises between 2008 and 2012, and many left to join other prosecutors' offices.

Bernardi, who earned $165,000 a year in his role as prosecutor, said 41 assistants are needed and there are only 34.   

"Hello, sir" was how his assistants greeted him when he walked through his office.

“Staffing is an issue,” Bernardi said. “We’re treading water.” 

But that may be a task for the new prosecutor, he said.  

Still, Bernardi said that being prosecutor was “the best experience of my life, and an honor.” He said he had expected it “would be just a five-year hitch” and was surprised when he was given two more terms, one by a Democrat, former acting Gov. Richard Codey. "It's been wonderful," he said.