The Homicide Task Force is the oldest specialized unit in the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. The Task Force was created to ensure that there exists close cooperation between the local police departments and the Prosecutor’s Office whenever a homicide occurs within Essex County. The Homicide Task Force’s role is to ensure that evidence for homicide cases is developed in a legal and professional manner. The goal is to develop the best case possible for trial.
The Homicide Task Force is also responsible to investigate and prosecute vehicular homicide incidents, i.e. fatal vehicle collisions or other related incidents where criminal liability is implicated. Also, it pursues matters that are designated as Special Investigations. There are times when a death occurs under circumstances that do not immediately indicate that a homicide was committed, but nonetheless require an investigation to determine if someone was legally responsible for the death. Special Investigations may also include matters involving: ATTEMPTED MURDER; WITNESS TAMPERING; OFFICIAL MISCONDUCT; ORGANIZED CRIME ACTIVITY; STREET GANG ACTIVITY; and MISSING PERSONS.
Since the Homicide Task Force is responsible for investigating homicides in Essex County in conjunction with the local police departments, an established protocol sets forth the procedures for local police agencies to notify the Prosecutor’s Office that a homicide has occurred.
• Once notified that a homicide has occurred, Detectives from the Crime Scene Unit and Homicide Task Force respond to the scene and work with the local police. They participates in every aspect of the investigation, including examination of the scene, preservation of evidence, questioning of witnesses and suspects, and meeting with the Medical Examiner.
• The on-call Supervisor provides any necessary support, supervision or direction as may be required in the investigation.
• The on-call Assistant Prosecutor is responsible for providing such legal advice and assistance that may be necessary to further the investigation. This includes assisting the Detectives in obtaining search warrants, detention orders and arrest warrants. Once an arrest occurs, the Assistant Prosecutor is responsible with the Detective for preparing the matter for Grand Jury presentation.
• The Secretarial / Clerical / Legal Intern staff assists the legal and investigative staff in every aspect of the investigations and trials.
In addition to criminal homicides, the Homicide Task Force is primarily responsible for investigating all police shootings that occur within Essex County. Generally, if the shooting is fatal, an Assistant Prosecutor in the Homicide Task Force will ultimately present the matter to the Grand Jury consistent with the directives of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice. Non-fatal police shootings are ultimately referred to the ECPO Professional Standards Bureau. The Homicide Task Force also responds to all incidents when a police officer is shot. The Squad also conducts Special and/or Confidential Investigations as may be assigned. Finally, the Task Force acts as a clearinghouse for the Kroll review cases that are homicide related, as well as Post Conviction Relief cases regarding homicide convictions.
In 2014, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office continued with the Homicide/Major Crimes Task Force. Detectives from the Newark, East Orange, Irvington and Orange police departments; the Essex County Sheriff, and the New Jersey State Police are assigned to the Homicide Unit pursuant to a Memorandum of Understanding, and conduct investigations in the county. All homicides, death investigations and police shootings throughout the county are investigated by the Homicide/Major Crimes Task Force. Having municipal detectives co-located in the Homicide Unit allows for continuity of investigations and eliminates duplicative efforts by county and local officers.
During 2014, the Homicide Unit investigated 119 homicides. Additionally, there were 100 special investigations that the Task Force oversaw. The 119 homicides in 2014 represent a decrease over the 156 homicides that occurred in 2013. Assistant Prosecutors and Detectives assigned to the Homicide Unit prepared, reviewed and executed over 350 search warrants and 300 communications data warrants.
While many cases have been handled by Assistant Prosecutors assigned to the Unit, the most notable in 2014 was the homicide that occurred in West Orange by an individual wanted for multiple homicides in the state of Washington.
Significant vehicular homicide cases included:
State v. Rafaella Maranhao – Defendant charged with two counts of vehicular homicide. She was driving drunk on NJ Turnpike. Two passengers were killed as a result. Charges are pending.
State v. Andy Soto – Defendant charged with vehicular homicide and leaving scene of motor vehicle accident. Investigative work, including surveillance footage, resulted in his being identified.
State v. Carlos Green – Defendant driving drunk and ran over pedestrian. Charges are pending.
State v. Cadagen Mensa – Defendant driving recklessly hit pedestrian and left scene, causing severe injury to the pedestrian. Charges are pending.
State v. Segvado Castillo – Defendant drunk driver caused severe injury to pedestrian. Charges are pending.
State v. Jose Cruz – Defendant operated dump truck, hit pedestrian and fled scene. The pedestrian suffered severe physical injury. Unit detectives, working with the Bloomfield Police Department, located the truck and ultimately the driver.
In April of 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion in Missouri v. McNeally, which totally altered the manner in which blood may be drawn from an individual suspected of DWI. Essentially, the Court held that there does not exist a per se exception to the warrant requirement based upon exigent circumstances, and therefore a warrant is required in certain situations.
This change resulted in the Office creating and implementing a telephonic search warrant system for obtaining blood from a person suspected of DWI. We accomplished this with the assistance of the trial court administrators for both Superior and Municipal Courts and the Chief Judges of those divisions, using the “Courtsmart” recording systems. We are now able to coordinate communication, via telephone, with the police officer, Assistant Prosecutor, and the Judge to obtain a search warrant via telephone to authorize the taking of blood from a person suspected of DWI. This procedure has been, and continues to be, used successfully in both Municipal and Superior Court matters, allowing us to obtain the most accurate reading of a person’s blood-alcohol content (“BAC”) for the prosecution.
We have conducted training with the municipal police departments concerning the procedures to be used in telephonic warrants for blood draws. Our unit created the search warrant and consent forms to be used countywide in DWI-related telephonic search warrants. Our intent moving forward is to continue training with municipal police departments on a variety of issues dealing with serious collisions.