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Ronald Prati, Jr.

Other New Jersey Sexual Assault Exonerations
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On April 15, 1993, 30-year-old Dorothy Mullineaux flagged down a police officer in Trenton, New Jersey, and reported that a man who offered her a ride while hitchhiking to the train station had chased her when she refused. The man had gotten out of his truck and ran after her, Mullineaux said.

Not long after, police spotted a truck parked on the side of the road near where Mullineaux said she was chased. Police saw 28-year-old Ronald Prati, Jr., the owner of the truck, walking in the grass toward the vehicle and questioned him.

Prati claimed that he had pulled over because Mullineaux had bolted into the street in front of him. Though he braked, he was concerned that he had struck her. He said that when he got out of the truck, Mullineaux was gone.

Prati’s truck fit the description of a vehicle used in assaults reported a month earlier. Two women claimed that they had been offered rides while hitchhiking and then were assaulted. Prati was taken into custody, and both women identified him as their assailant.

One woman, identified as P.H., said she had been hitchhiking when she accepted a ride from Prati. P.H. said that instead of taking her home, however, Prati punched her and raped her at knifepoint.

A third woman identified Prati as the man who forced her into his car at gunpoint in April 1990—three years earlier. This woman said she believed Prati was intending to sexually assault her, but she escaped. She said that more than a year later, in November 1991, she was victimized again by Prati. On that occasion, she said Prati forced her into his truck at knifepoint and sexually assaulted her. She said she had not reported the two incidents because she thought police would not believe her.

Prati was indicted on charges of aggravated sexual assault, aggravated assault, robbery, criminal restraint, and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose.

In July 1996, Prati went to trial in Mercer County Superior Court only on the charges relating to the attack on P.H.

P.H. testified that on March 25, 1993, she was staying with a friend, but left at 2:30 a.m. because her friend was fighting with her boyfriend. Because she had no money, P.H. said she decided to walk to train station. She said that Prati stopped and offered her a ride home in his pick-up truck and that she accepted.

P.H. said that she asked to be let out when Prati drove in the opposite direction of her home, but Prati refused. She said he grabbed her by the hair and pulled out a knife. P.H. said Prati drove to a park where he got out and walked to the passenger side. He ordered her to remove her pants and her right boot, and then raped her.

P.H. said that Prati then punched her in the face, breaking her glasses, and pulled her from the truck. She said he grabbed her by the neck and began slamming her head and body against the truck while demanding money. She told the jury that she was so terrified that she urinated and defecated on herself. She testified that she managed to run away and hide when Prati was distracted by a passing car. P.H. said that after she heard the truck leave, she “fixed” her clothing and ran to a nearby building to seek help.

Trenton Police Lieutenant Michael Ruzck testified that he saw a woman get into a truck at about the same location that P.H. said she accepted the ride. Ruzck said that he suspected she was engaging in prostitution. He said he drove around the block, intending to stop the truck and investigate, but that by the time he came back, the truck and P.H. were gone. He did not identify Prati.

Dr. Dale Goode, a hospital physician, testified that he examined P.H. and found that her eye was injured. An x-ray revealed an orbital fracture. Goode found no bruising or swelling of her neck. He performed a vaginal examination, which found “slightly blood-tinged, watery fluid,” which could have been caused by either minor trauma or “residual menstrual” discharge. A rape kit was prepared. P.H. said that she had not had sex for the previous two weeks.

Maureen Low-Beer, a senior forensic scientist with the New Jersey State Police Laboratory, testified that she examined the contents of the rape kit as well as a piece of fabric from P.H.’s pants. All of the tests on the rape kit were negative for the presence of seminal material or sperm, Low-Beer testified. A portion of the pants tested positive for spermatozoa, so Low-Beer said she recommended that DNA tests be performed.

Anjali Ranadive, a staff molecular biologist from Cellmark Diagnostics, a private DNA testing laboratory, testified that she analyzed the DNA evidence preserved from the pants. Ranadive said that she was unable to isolate a DNA profile because the material submitted contained “either no sperm or too few sperm to yield a result.”

The prosecution also called Mullineaux, who described the incident that led to Prati’s arrest in April 1993. Mullineaux told the jury that she was hitchhiking to the train station when Prati offered her a ride. She said after she declined, Prati got out of his truck and chased her. She said that as she fled, she saw a police car and alerted the officers, who subsequently found Prati walking near his truck.

Despite the absence of conclusive forensic evidence, the prosecutor, during closing argument to the jury, argued, “We have sperm in her pants. We don’t know whose it is. The state took every effort—it tried to figure out if there was a potential donor of that sperm in the victim’s pants. That sperm does not eliminate (Prati) in any way whatsoever….And certainly there can be an argument that that could have been (Prati’s) sperm.”

On July 29, 1996, the jury convicted Prati of aggravated sexual assault, aggravated assault, robbery, unlawful restraint, and criminal use of a weapon for an unlawful purpose. Prati was enraged by the verdict. When bailiffs began handcuffing him to remove him from the courtroom, a melee erupted when Prati yelled, “I didn’t (expletive) do it! I didn’t get a fair trial…Corruption at Trenton’s finest.” Prati was pepper-sprayed and put into four-point restraints before he was taken to a cell.

Ultimately, Prati pled guilty to assaulting two correctional officers. Superior Court Judge Anthony Parillo sentenced Prati to 20 years in prison for the convictions in the case involving P.H., and an additional four years for the assault on the sheriff’s deputies.

The prosecution then dismissed the charges relating to the three other incidents, including the case involving Mullineaux.

Prati appealed, but the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court upheld his convictions in 2000.

He subsequently filed a motion seeking DNA testing, contending that advances in DNA testing procedures could establish that he was not the rapist. The motion was denied by the trial court, which held that DNA testing would not make a difference since P.H. had identified him as her attacker.

Prati appealed. In 2007, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court and ordered that testing be performed. The appeals court noted that the prosecution, in its closing argument, contended that Prati could not be excluded as the source of the sperm. “Thus, if the jury accepted this…the DNA material found on the victim’s clothing could only have come from her assailant,” the court said. “Under these circumstances, we are satisfied that defendant is entitled to have the DNA material analyzed.”

The DNA tests were performed and excluded Prati. The DNA profile was submitted to the FBI’s DNA database and linked to another man.

On October 2, 2009, the prosecution’s motion to vacate Prati’s convictions was granted the charges were dismissed. At the same time, the prosecution reinstated the case involving Mullineaux, who had committed suicide in 2008. Prati agreed to plead guilty in return for time served and was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 11/6/2017
State:New Jersey
County:Mercer
Most Serious Crime:Sexual Assault
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Assault, Other Violent Felony, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1993
Convicted:1996
Exonerated:2009
Sentence:20 years
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:28
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*