NJ court nixes retrial for man in notorious ’94 rape, murder
TRENTON — A man convicted twice in a notorious 1990s rape and murder in New Jersey has lost his bid for a new trial based on bite-mark evidence.
Steven Fortin was convicted in the 1994 attack along Route 1 in Avenel, which was featured on the cable TV series “Forensic Files." He also pleaded guilty to an attack on a Maine state trooper several months later that officials said exhibited similar characteristics to the New Jersey attack.
Fortin's first conviction was overturned due to evidentiary issues surrounding testimony by an expert witness who spoke about similarities between the two attacks.
Fortin was on death row before New Jersey abolished the death penalty in 2007 and his sentence was changed to life without parole.
In his appeal, he argued that studies in recent years have cast doubt on the reliability of bite-mark evidence and led to the reversal of more than two dozen convictions.
In Tuesday’s appellate ruling, the three-judge panel said jurors at Fortin's second trial heard testimony about the unreliability of bite-mark evidence, and noted that no state has ruled it is inadmissible in criminal trials. DNA evidence also tied Fortin to the scene of the New Jersey attack and helped to convict him, the panel said.
The victim in the New Jersey case was found by her boyfriend lying bloodied and dead in an uninstalled concrete sewer pipe near the QuickCheck where she had gone to buy sandwiches after 11 p.m. on Aug. 11, 1994. The mother of four young children was naked from the waist down, her underwear left hanging in a tree and partially eaten sandwich nearby.
The medical examiner testified that she had been beaten and strangled and appeared to have been anally raped by finger or hand.
She also had bite marks on her chin, left breast and left nipple, which the medical examiner testified was "uncommon" and that it was the first time she had seen that pattern of bite marks after nearly 7,000 autopsies in 30 years.
Shortly after the killing, Fortin moved to Maine. Eight months later, a Maine state trooper encountered Fortin with his car on the side of road. After failing sobriety tests, the trooper radioed for backup. Prosecutors said that during "chitchat" between the two, Fortin proposed that the trooper let him get away. When she declined, he erupted in violence by grabbing her neck and knocking her out by banging her head against the car door, authorities said.
The trooper said she awakened to find her breasts exposed and she was naked from the waist down with several injuries consistent with being beaten and raped by hand. She also had bites on her chin and left breast.
Fortin was arrested later that night.
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