WATCH: Judge Mirtha Ospina tosses evidence from HCPO prosecutor Peter Stoma’s case against JCPD cops
Hudson County Superior Court Judge Mirtha Ospina tossed out key evidence from the case brought against JCPD officers Joseph Ascolese, Kelly Chesler and Michael O’Neill being prosecuted by the HCPO’s Peter Stoma and Charles Cho. VIDEO BELOW:
As the old saying goes, when it rains it pours, and, for the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office (HCPO), the forecast went — figuratively speaking — from a tropical storm to Category 2 hurricane after Hudson County Superior Court Judge Mirtha Ospina tossed out key evidence used to indict four Jersey City Police Department (JCPD) officers.
The four JCPD officers – Capt. Joseph Ascolese (retired), LT. Kelly Chesler and officers Michael Maietti (retired) and Michael O’Neill – were hit with a 107-count indictment on June 14, 2016. The indictment, signed by First Deputy Assistant Prosecutor Peter Stoma, included charges alleging conspiracy, falsifying records, official misconduct and pattern of official misconduct.
Officer Maietti has since accepted a plea deal to testify for the HCPO, but, according to sources, that may have less to do with his apparent guilt and more to do with the long pre-trial period crippling him in multiple ways.
The decision handed down by Ospina on April 11, 2018, nearly two years since the original indictment, disputed the accuracy of “origination location” from “cell phone toll billing records” which were used to indict the officers. Reading her decision from the bench, Ospina said “the state would essentially be asking a jury to speculate as to where the defendants were on the dates and times in question by simply looking at a cell phone toll billing record.”
“Asking a jury to determine that because the origination location on a toll billing record states a town in Bergen County, that is Woodcliff Lake, for example, that the defendants must not have been in Jersey City during that period of time,” Ospina added. “This would present a grave issue, as counsel and the court are aware, that JCY-1, for example, includes towns in Northern Bergen County – i.e. Woodcliff Lake.”
Ospina continued that “this shows just how unreliable the origination location information is without the relevant detail cell site information and an expert to explain how the origination is generated and engaged in a comparative analysis.”
“This court finds that presenting the toll billing records to a jury without a detail cell site location information would only confuse and mislead a jury, and ultimately force a jury to speculate as to where the defendants were or were not on the dates and times at issue.”
The HCPO did not obtain the cell site information cited by Ospina prior to Verizon destroying the records, which may have exonerated the officers prior to the indictment.
Ospina’s ruling comes at a difficult time for the HCPO, especially in light of the prosecutor’s office “exonerating” ex-Chief Philip Zacche for a no-show, off-duty security job in the Jersey City Housing Authority (JCHA) originally exposed by Real Jersey City. Zacche has since been convicted by the U.S. Department of Justice for the same allegations the HCPO cleared him of.
Of note, Chesler claims Public Safety Director James Shea and Zacche retaliated against her for reporting alleged sexual harassment by other JCPD officers in a federal lawsuit – filed over a year prior to the indictment – which includes Ascolese as co-plaintiff.
According to the suit, which has been misreported by the Jersey Journal, Chesler alleges Zacche said that Shea told him she had engaged in sexual activities with “half the motorcycle squad.” Chesler and Ascolese claim they were removed from their positions in special operations and transferred to patrol on that same day, January 22, 2015.
In a statement to the Jersey Journal following Ospina’s decision, Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez said “I highly respect the judges and their decisions, and that was her decision. We accept that and we’ll move forward.”