Former death row inmate to get 3rd trial in 1985 killing
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (AP) — Thirty-three years after Irene Schnaps’ badly beaten body was found in her apartment by a co-worker, the man who spent nearly two decades on death row for her killing is set for a new trial that will rekindle long-festering questions about the forensic evidence used to convict him.
A trial would be the culmination of a nearly 20-year effort by Nathaniel Harvey’s defense lawyers to correct what they claim was an egregious miscarriage of justice involving prosecutorial misconduct, perjured testimony, suspect blood evidence and the willful ignoring of clues that led to a different suspect.
“The defense lawyers were ineffective, the prosecutors were crooked, the science was bad and the experts were liars,” Harvey’s lead attorney, Eric Kleiner, said recently. “It took years to figure it out.”
The now-68-year-old Harvey was twice convicted for killing Schnaps and was on and off death row from 1986 until 2007, when New Jersey abolished the death penalty. Both his convictions were overturned on appeal.
In September, the state Supreme Court declined to hear the Middlesex County prosecutor’s office’s appeal of the latest reversal, setting the stage for a third trial.
Through a spokeswoman, the prosecutor’s office declined to comment on Kleiner’s allegations or on the case in general but confirmed plans to retry Harvey. The prosecutor who handled the investigation of Harvey, and who is not with the office anymore, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
A trial date has yet to be scheduled.
A relative of the victim, reached by telephone, said she did not want to discuss the case publicly due to privacy concerns. But she said the pain of Schnaps’ death has never gone away and has been exacerbated by the prospect of another trial.
Were Harvey to be acquitted, or if charges are dismissed before a trial, even Kleiner wasn’t sure when Harvey would get out of prison. That’s because he is also serving time for several crimes he confessed to, including burglary and sexual assault.
He didn’t confess to killing the 37-year-old Schnaps, Kleiner contends. That contradicts the accounts of police who said Harvey confessed, though the confession wasn’t tape-recorded.
Harvey’s first conviction was tossed out because a court ruled police should have re-read him his Miranda rights after he interrupted questioning to ask to speak to his father. At the second trial, blood found at the crime scene took center stage.
DNA testing, still relatively new at the time, was only able to conclude that Harvey couldn’t be ruled out. Prosecution experts then used an additional technique called dot-intensity analysis to estimate that characteristics found in blood mixed in with Schnaps’ was consistent with Harvey’s and could be found in only one in 1,400 African-Americans. Harvey is black. Defense experts argued the ratio could actually have been as low as one in 50.
The evidence was enough to convict Harvey a second time, and in the late 1990s the state Supreme Court upheld his conviction and death sentence. But in a lengthy dissent, Justice Alan Handler sharply criticized his colleagues for glossing over what he saw were significant problems with the blood testing.
“Dot-intensity analysis as used here — a procedure never before used in any court case, successfully documented in any laboratory, or validated in any scientific study or published literature — has not been shown to be an established and reliable procedure,” Handler wrote. “The uncritical admission of this evidence in a capital trial without even remotely establishing its validity is an egregious wrong.”
Kleiner also contends investigators didn’t sufficiently probe Schnaps’ neighbor, Peter Stohwasser, who had a previous stalking conviction and admitted Schnaps had rebuffed his romantic advances.
At Harvey’s second trial, the prosecution told jurors that Stohwasser had been eliminated as a suspect because he’d passed a polygraph test. But the test had actually revealed Stohwasser had been deceptive in his responses, an appeals court wrote last year when it upheld the reversal of Harvey’s conviction.
Defense attorneys weren’t given that evidence and didn’t ask for it, a judge who ruled in favor of Harvey in 2015 wrote.
Blood and hair samples also could connect Stohwasser to Schnaps, Kleiner alleges, but weren’t adequately investigated. Kleiner said he also found evidence that Stohwasser knew another local woman, Donna Macho, whose body was found in 1984 in a field not far from where Schnaps lived.
Stohwasser, who died in 2011, denied any involvement in the Schnaps murder in interviews with two newspapers in 2005.
At a third trial, prosecutors likely would introduce evidence including a bloody footprint left at the crime scene that was comparable to Harvey’s shoe size but much smaller than Stohwasser’s, and a Seiko watch found in Harvey’s car, after an empty Seiko box was found in Schnaps’ apartment.