‘Cold case’ murder conviction upheld by NJ appeals court
On Tuesday, a New Jersey appeals court affirmed the "cold case" murder conviction of a Woodbury man serving a 50-year prison sentence in the 2002 stabbing death of a 22-year-old Clarksboro woman, the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office said in a press release.
Brian M. Mertz, 37, of Woodbury was charged with killing Jennifer Whipkey 7 1/2 years after the crime occurred.
on Oct. 25, 2013, a Gloucester County jury found Mertz guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Whipkey. The body of Whipkey, who had a 4-year-old daughter, was found stabbed and slashed more than 60 times in a wooded area of West Deptford, near a motel where Mertz had been staying, the press release states.
Following the decision Tuesday, Gloucester County Prosecutor Sean F. Dalton praised the "outstanding advocacy work" of Assistant Prosecutor Joseph Enos, as well as the trial work of First Assistant Prosecutor Michael S. Curwin in "this important, difficult case." Curwin, who was retired, died suddenly on Oct. 31.
"This decision provides a great overview of a murder which occurred a few days before I was sworn in as county prosecutor in 2002; involved an exhaustive investigation by Lt. Langdon Sills and our entire detective staff and an aggressive effort by FAP Mike Curwin," Prosecutor Dalton said in the press release.
Authorities say The appellate judges found no merit in the argument that Mertz' lawyer argued that he should have been allowed to interview a juror who expressed second thoughts about her vote to convict Mertz, but the appellate judges "found no merit in the argument." According to the prosecutor's office, the juror had contacted the court five days after the verdict with her concerns.
"Only if there is a 'strong showing of juror misconduct should interrogation of a juror be allowed," the appellate opinion said, citing prior court decisions.
"Denial of a defense interview request in the Mertz case is not a cause for reversal of the conviction because the juror was interviewed by trial judge Walter L. Marshall Jr., who found no suggestion of 'outside influence, racial predjudice, media exposure' or other or irregular influences, the appellate court said in its 25 page decision," the prosecutor's statement said.
Despite her concerns in the days after the verdict, the juror did not hesitate when asked immediately after the verdict if she agreed with the decision, according to a statement by Enos opposing the appeal.
In addition, the appeals court "rejected defense arguments that the trial judge' s jury instructions were insufficient regarding the credibility of a defense witness." Mertz's attorney also argued that the statement made by the prosecuting attorney was improper. The prosecutor, in his closing statement during the trial, said that there was "a lack of evidence that anybody ever born in the history of the world" other than Mertz could have murdered Whipkey.
The appellate judges sided with the prosecutors, stating that the closing arguments were "consistent with the evidence presented" that DNA from semen found in the victim, that laboratory tests showed matched Mertz' DNA profile, could be from only one in 5.48 trillion people.
According to the GCPO, the appellate judges also determined that Mertz's 50-year prison sentence was within the permissible range for the crime he committed and was based on credible evidence.
The Gloucester County Prosecutor said Tuesday that the appellate court's ruling "reminded him of FAP Curwin' s comment after the verdict: 'While no one can restore Jennifer to her loved ones, most particularly to her devoted daughter Alyssa, this outcome will hopefully provide them with some measure of comfort in knowing that the person who committed the murder is being held accountable as the result of a fair trial, conducted in accordance with the most sacred principles of American criminal law.'"
Toniann Antonelli is the digital managing editor for news at NJ 101.5. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @ToniRadio1015.