ELIZABETH — A man accused of repeatedly raping a 7-year-old girl has the state’s bail reform law and a Superior Court judge to thank for releasing him from jail — and even letting him travel out of state for a summer vacation with his teenage son.

Despite protests by a Union County assistant prosecutor, Judge Lara DiFabrizio sprung 36-year-old Daniel Williams from the slammer this July without any provision for house arrest or electronic monitoring. The judge allowed the Franklin Township man to continue working on a garbage truck in residential neighborhoods despite being charged with the most serious sex crime felony on the books.

Williams is not the only suspected sex predator that DiFabrizio has released before trial.

In October, she freed and imposed house arrest and ankle monitoring for Edward Giles, an East Orange police sergeant accused of spending decades raping and molesting victims he knew as a foster parent of more than 50 children and as a youth coach who’s interacted with hundreds more.

Prosecutors in Union County have bristled at DiFabrizio’s decisions regarding pre-trial detention. The judge has accounted for half of the eight appeals that prosecutors in this county have filed against judges since the state’s bail reform law went into effect in 2017. At least two of her decisions have been overturned by fellow judges.

The law, which effectively did away with cash bail, has resulted in thousands of defendants being freed before trial. Despite initial complaints by some law enforcement officials and bail bondsmen, crime and arrests have trended downward.

And while the system may be far from perfect, criminal justice advocates say the law allows prosecutors to appeal judges — something prosecutors chose not to do in the Williams and Giles cases.

Williams and Giles have remained out of trouble and have followed the conditions of their release — perhaps affirming DiFabrizio’s judgement that the men did not pose flight risks or threats to their communities. But that has been cold comfort for prosecutors and terrified victims left on tenterhooks.

Williams was arrested July 15 and charged with first-degree aggravated sexual assault, second-degree sexual assault, and second-degree endangering the welfare of a child. The alleged victim — the daughter of Williams’ ex-girlfriend — came forward with the allegations when she was 12 years old.

The girl told her mother and authorities that Williams first kissed her and touched her private parts when she was 7. On more than one occasion until the following year, he sexually penetrated her while he was living with the family in their Linden home, the girl told investigators.

Prosecutors say Williams threatened to hurt the girl or her mother if she ever told anybody about what he did. Prosecutors said Williams also sent his ex and the girl sexually graphic and violent text messages.

Williams’ attorney, Thomas Mirigliano, argued during a July 26 hearing that his client denies all the charges and the attorney cast doubt on the words of a “12-year-old little girl who is coming out with these things.”

“We don’t know what this girl’s life has been in the past five years … we don’t know what's happened to her since then. We don’t know why she would make these allegations,” Mirigliano told DiFabrizio. “It would be extremely unfair and simply punitive to keep my client in jail until he’s able to defend himself at trial. That’s not the purpose of detention.”

Mirigliano also argued that his client would lose his job and income if he were kept locked up or under house arrest.

"He’s never been in this position before and he intends to fight these charges all the way to the end because he did not do it and he adamantly maintains his innocence," he said about Williams.

DiFabrizio — a Seton Hall graduate from Scotch Plains who was appointed in 2017 by then-Gov. Chris Christie — concluded that Williams was a candidate for release because he had no criminal record, had no other accusations against him, was employed and his brother and several friends showed up to the hearing to support him.

The judge also gave little weight to the threatening text messages because the girl’s mother responded with an “lol” and called the sender of the texts “pathetic,” indicating that she was not really in fear for her life.

She OK'd his trip to North Carolina this summer as long as his visit with his underage son was supervised. He also was barred from contacting the victim or her family and was ordered to check in with the court by phone and in person every other week and surrender his passport.

A spokesman for Union County Acting Prosecutor Lyndsey Ruotolo’s office declined to react to the judge’s specific decisions but said in a written statement that “we strongly believe that defendants charged with serious criminal offenses of this nature should be detained pending the adjudication of their cases – and if they are released, the strictest conditions allowable under the law should be put into effect, in order to protect the community at large and preserve the integrity of the prosecution.”

The New Jersey Criminal Justice Reform Act was created with strong bipartisan support to ensure that all defendants would not be held behind bars for months or years until their trials simply because they could not afford to post bail.

The system was also designed to make sure wealthy individuals accused of serious crimes that posed a risk to the community or a flight risk would not be able to post bond and get out of jail before trial.

Alexander Shalom, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said the system is a step forward but it’s not perfect because in some cases the wrong people are detained or released.

But, he added, “That’s exactly the same problem we had under the old system. What we’ve done is we’ve reduced the number of those errors.”

A study released this month by the The MDRC Center for Criminal Justice Research found that arrests have declined since the law’s implementation.

Shalom said judges have the authority to take multiple factors into consideration when deciding whether someone will remain incarcerated.

“If a party thinks the judge got it wrong, we’ve built in a system that allows appeals of those decisions. Prosecutors both can and do appeal decisions made by judges about detention all the time. The appellate court will also look at a host of factors to determine what to do," he said.

Judges also have to explain and justify their decisions.

He said the system isn’t perfect but we’re not replacing a perfect system.

“Let’s never make the mistake of comparing the system we have today to some ideal of perfection," he said. "Let’s be responsible and compare it to the failed system that we had before.”

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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