On May 8, 1996, a 17-year-old girl called police in Newark, New Jersey to report that she had been attacked while walking on the street, dragged into a parking lot and raped.
On May 25, 1996, 29-year-old Rodney Roberts was arrested by Newark Police for an unrelated robbery. Police said they put a photograph of Roberts, who had a prior conviction for conspiracy to commit rape, into a photographic lineup and showed it to the rape victim. Police said the rape victim identified Roberts as her attacker and put her initials on the back of Roberts’ photograph.
Roberts was then charged with kidnapping and sexual assault. On July 16, 1996, Roberts pled guilty to kidnapping in Essex County Superior Court and was sentenced to seven years in prison. He also pled guilty to the unrelated robbery charge for a prison term to be served concurrently with the kidnapping sentence. The prosecution then dismissed the sexual assault charge.
In May 2000, Roberts was denied parole, primarily because he refused to admit he had kidnapped or sexually assaulted the victim, despite his guilty plea. In January 2001, Roberts, without a lawyer, filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea to the kidnapping charge. Before a lawyer could be assigned, Judge Eugene Codey dismissed the motion. However, an attorney was, in fact, assigned not long after and the attorney and an investigator spoke to the victim and she denied identifying Roberts. Because the motion had been dismissed, the information was never presented to a court.
In June 2004, when Roberts reached the end of his prison sentence, the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office obtained a court order committing Roberts as a sexually violent predator and he was transferred to a secure treatment facility.
In March 2006, Roberts filed another pro se motion to withdraw his plea. Judge Codey signed an order on April 3 assigning him a lawyer, but on April 17, before the lawyer could take any action, Judge Codey denied the motion, saying the time for filing such a motion had passed. Roberts appealed and in 2007, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court reversed and sent the case back to the trial court to allow a lawyer for Roberts to present argument on whether the motion to withdraw the plea was time-barred.
By that time, DNA tests had been conducted, but were only performed on the slides made from swabs taken from the victim’s vagina. The original rape kit, which contained the swabs, could not be found. A DNA profile was identified, but because no semen was found on the slides and because the victim’s DNA profile was unknown, there was a possibility the profile was the victim’s. The state contended that because the profile could have been the victim’s, the tests did not exclude Roberts.
After the case was remanded, the victim was interviewed again and gave a more extensive statement. She said that when she was in the hospital after the attack, a police officer brought a suspect to her room and asked if she could identify him, but she could not. The woman said she later went to a police station and was shown photographs, but still did not identify anyone. She told the investigator that she never spoke to police again and had not spoken to anyone about the case until Roberts’ investigator came to speak with her in 2000.
In July 2007, Judge Codey again denied the motion to withdraw the plea, ruling that it was filed too late. In his decision, the judge noted that because police had a statement from the victim saying that she had identified Roberts, he did not believe her recantation. The judge said her claim that she was unable to identify her attacker was “clearly false.” The judge noted that in 2005, when the victim was asked to provide a DNA sample as part of the testing process, she never said anything about Roberts not being her attacker.
Roberts appealed again and in 2009, the Appellate Division reversed once more. The court held that the motion to withdraw the guilty plea was not time-barred and that a hearing should be held to assess the victim’s credibility rather than rely on competing sworn affidavits from police and the victim.
At the hearing before Judge Codey, the woman gave the same statement that she had given the defense investigator—that she never identified anyone and that she did not know Roberts. On cross-examination, however, when asked if Roberts was her attacker, she said she was “not sure.”
A police detective told the judge that the victim had identified Roberts in a photographic lineup and that she signed and dated the back of the photograph.
Roberts testified that his lawyer told him that the lawyer had talked to the victim and that she told him that she had identified Roberts to police and that she knew him from the neighborhood.
The lawyer for Roberts when he pled guilty denied telling Roberts that he ever talked to the victim or that he told Roberts that she had identified him because she knew him from the neighborhood.
As part of the hearing, the judge evaluated additional DNA testing that had been done after the initial tests of the slides made from the vaginal swabs. This time the testing included an analysis of the DNA of the woman's son who the woman believed was conceived by the rape. A report issued in December 2009 concluded that the child was not the offspring of the victim and Roberts.
In May 2010, Judge Codey denied Roberts’ motion a third time, holding that the victim’s statement was “riddled with inconsistencies.” The judge said, “It is obvious to even the most casual observer that this application by (Roberts) is a blatant attempt to withdraw a voluntarily entered plea” in order to try to change his status as a sexually violent predator.
Roberts appealed again. In March 2013, the Appellate Division reversed a third time. The court held that Roberts’ lawyer during the evidentiary hearing had failed to call the investigator or the lawyer who had originally interviewed the victim. Their testimony could have buttressed the victim’s testimony, the appeals court said. The court also said that Roberts’ lawyer had failed to call a witness to rebut the prosecution’s argument that the DNA tests were inconclusive. “The failure to do so is inexplicable,” the court said.
The appellate court sent the case back for another evidentiary hearing. Because Judge Codey had retired, the case was assigned to a different judge. Roberts was also assigned a new lawyer, Michael Pastacaldi, who urged a new search for the missing rape kit. Detectives looked again and did find the rape kit, but the swabs were missing. A subsequent search located the swabs.
In the summer of 2013, Pastacaldi filed a motion for further DNA testing. The testing was conducted and Roberts was excluded as the source of semen found on the swabs.
In November 2013, Judge Sherry Hutchins-Henderson ordered that Roberts’ guilty plea to, and conviction for, kidnapping be vacated. On February 12, 2014, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office dismissed the charge. In March 2014, the state of New Jersey agreed to set aside the finding that Roberts was a sexually violent predator and he was released from custody.
In September 2015, Roberts filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages from the Newark Police Department, Essex County Prosecutor's Office and others.
– Maurice Possley