A Jersey City man who received a mistrial in a fatal crash due to an evidence debacle will receive a new trial based solely on proving reckless driving, the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division ruled.
By John Heinis/Hudson County View
” … Following the testimony of seven witnesses for the State, a testifying hospital nurse identified an inconsistency in the lab results,” recalled Appellate Court Judges Jack Sabatino, Garry Rothstadt, and Jessica Mayer.
“That disclosure, in turn, revealed the State had inadvertently misattributed the blood sample of a deceased hospital patient to defendant, which the hospital had mistakenly released, and which the State then failed to authenticate. In addition, it came to light that defendant’s own blood sample had been irretrievably lost.”
In December 2017, Stephen Zadroga, then 27, of was charged with death by auto, three counts of assault by auto, causing death or injury while driving unlicensed or suspended and three counts of causing death or injury while driving unlicensed or suspended.
The Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office accused him of driving drunk and speeding on Paterson Plank Road while he had two passengers in the car. Matthew Nierstedt, a Jersey City firefighter, was in the back seat and died due to injuries sustained in the crash.
A mistrial was declared because of the aforementioned error with Zadroga’s blood sample, resulting in a mistrial in July 2019. The HCPO had alleged that Zadroga had a blood alcohol content of .376, over four times the legal limit of .08.
Peter Willis, Zadroga’s attorney in the matter, said in a brief a little over a month later that the case should be dismissed since the state’s “reckless conduct” denies his client of the “constitutional right of fundamental fairness.”
The appellate court did not agree, stating that the mistrial did not violate the defendant’s constitutional right to be free from double jeopardy even though he preserved the first two counts of the indictment.
“Even without BAC results or circumstantial proof of defendant’s inebriation, as the judge recognized, there is ample non-alcohol-related evidence here of his criminally reckless driving to justify his re-prosecution on counts one and two,” the court ruled.
“The judge reasonably balanced the competing interests and reached a just determination to dismiss some counts with prejudice but preserve others. His ruling was not fundamentally unfair.”
However, the court also ruled that evidence of Zadroga drinking at the bars on the night of the incident should be admissible.
“To be clear: before a new grand jury and at any subsequent trial, the State may not offer proof of any kind to show that defendant was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the collision. The trial court’s decision is hereby modified to include this evidentiary prohibition.”