Canadians Mount Campaign To Obtain Man in New Jersey Prison
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) _ To the state of New Jersey, a young Canadian was justly convicted in the killing of a classmate’s mother, whose body was dumped at a campground along with her slain husband.
But to many people in Canada, 22-year-old Bruce Curtis is a victim of New Jersey’s criminal justice system who deserves a reduced sentence or even clemency for what they believe was an accidental shooting.
Hundreds of Canadians have written to Gov. Thomas H. Kean, asking him to intervene. Many participated in candelight vigils from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Vancouver, British Columbia, on Curtis’ behalf.
The New Jersey Legislature even passed a bill that could allow the transfer of Curtis to Canada, where he could be eligible for earlier parole. Kean is expected to sign it, but no one knows if he will approve a transfer for Curtis.
Monmouth County officials who put Curtis behind bars believe he should stay at the Youth Correctional Institution in Bordentown, serving a 20-year prison term. In New Jersey, he would not be eligible for parole until he serves 10 years.
″We would oppose vehemently any transfer of this defendant to Canada,″ said Monmouth County First Assistant Prosecutor Paul Chaiet. ″Every court that has ever considered this matter has determined that Bruce Curtis was fairly convicted in a New Jersey court on a New Jersey crime.″
Curtis, a slight, bookish poetry writer, came to New Jersey in June 1982 to spend time in the shore community of Loch Arbour at the home of Scott Franz, a classmate at King’s-Edgehill School in Nova Scotia. Curtis had just graduated from the school.
But while Curtis was at Loch Arbour, Franz and his stepfather, Alfred Podgis, 58, had a series of violent arguments that culminated in Franz killing Podgis. Moments later, a gun Curtis was holding went off, killing Franz’s mother, Rosemary Podgis, 56.
The two teen-agers dumped the bodies at a Pennsylvania campsite and drove to Atlantic City, the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tenn., and suburban Dallas, where they were apprehended trying to use Mrs. Podgis’ credit card.
Both were indicted on murder charges. Franz pleaded guilty, testified against Curtis and was sentenced to 20 years.
Curtis was convicted of the lesser charge of aggravated manslaughter and also was sentenced to 20 years, although his attorney suggested the shooting of Mrs. Podgis was accidental, a claim the prosecution rejects.
Chaiet says the facts of the case don’t support any conclusion that Mrs. Podgis was killed accidentally. He notes that Curtis and Franz dumped the bodies and tried to clean the house, adding: ″It did not seem to me that that was the kind of response (to) an accident.″
Curtis’ family fought the verdict, saying errors were committed at the trial and maintaining that he should have received a lighter sentence than Franz. The state Supreme Court let the verdict stand and the Canadian government, despite some political pressure, lodged no protest.
Curtis’ family then turned to the Legislature, and lawmakers last month sent Kean the bill that would allow prisoner exchanges between the state and foreign governments. A spokesman said Kean proposed the bill simply to allow such exchanges to take place, but that many legislators voted for it because of the Curtis case.
″Families with young persons convicted of a crime may never be able to see their children if we do not participate in these transfer programs,″ said a sponsor of the legislation, Assemblyman Charles J. Catrillo.
Chaiet said of Curtis’ family: ″I think we all expect them to be emotionally involved and not have a clear picture of what went on.″
″There were victims in this case, the family members, society,″ Chaiet said. ″We feel that we have better control over this situation if the defendant serves time in New Jersey, subject to our laws and parole laws.″