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Timothy Puskas

Other New Jersey Exonerations
At about 10:30 a.m. on February 15, 2014, police in New Brunswick, New Jersey, found the body of 22-year-old William McCaw in the snow-covered backyard of a house on Hartwell Street, about a half mile from the main campus of Rutgers University.

A medical examiner performed an autopsy on February 16 and found that McCaw had a skull fracture, signs of brain hemorrhaging, and lacerations on his face and the back of his head. The autopsy suggested that McCaw had been beaten with a two-pronged tool, such as a wrench or a crowbar. The autopsy did not provide a time of death.

McCaw was a former student at Rutgers, and he had gone to two fraternity parties on February 14. He was seen leaving the second party at around 2:30 a.m. on February 15. The autopsy said his blood-alcohol content at the time of death was .024.

Friends told the police that McCaw frequently returned to New Brunswick and would often spend the night after an evening of partying. One of McCaw’s friends lived in a house on Robinson Street, which could be reached by cutting through the backyard of the house on Hartwell Street.

The police circulated flyers asking for the public’s help. The flyers contained information about the presumed window of McCaw’s death—between 3 a.m. to 9 a.m. on February 15. Separately, the police began gathering videos from area homes and businesses that appeared to capture images of McCaw as he walked west from campus through the snow after leaving the party.

Michael Daniewicz, a detective with the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, had set up a mobile command center on Hartwell Street and received a second-hand tip that 38-year-old Timothy Puskas might be a “person of interest.” According to Daniewicz, Puskas’s nephew told someone that he thought Puskas had been behaving erratically since the murder.

Puskas was a landlord in New Brunswick who owned two properties in the city. One of the houses, which Puskas co-owned with his mother and where he lived, was a quarter-mile from the house on Hartwell Street. At the time, Puskas was also facing charges of vehicular homicide and leaving the scene of an accident based on a 2012 incident.

Daniewicz and other investigators went to Puskas’s house on February 18, but he was not home. Several other people at the house tried to call Puskas. Eventually, a tenant named Wayne Stoecker reached Puskas and told him what was going on.

When Puskas arrived home, the investigators took him to the mobile command center for an interview. He was not read his Miranda rights. The interview lasted no more than 15 minutes and was not recorded. Puskas said that he had come home on February 14 at around 10 p.m. and had not left until around 1 p.m. the next day. He said he had been acting strange because of his pending criminal charge and because his mother was sick.

The detectives allowed Puskas to leave. By mid-March, Daniewicz would later testify, the investigation was a “cold case,” with no viable suspect.

At the time of the murder, Puskas had asked the police in the nearby township of Edison to investigate the possible theft and unauthorized cashing of rent checks he received. The police reviewed surveillance video from a bank and identified Stoecker and a woman named Ashley Edwards as suspects. Puskas texted Stoecker on March 10 and said that he and his mother were upset about the “bank fraud.” He texted other people and accused Edwards of taking more than $3,000 from his account. Stoecker and Edward were arrested on burglary and theft charges unrelated to the bank fraud.

Daniewicz interviewed Edwards on March 18, took a statement from her, and then went to interview Stoecker at the Union County Jail. He took a statement from Stoecker and also seized his cellphone and a gray hoodie.

On March 19, Daniewicz brought Stoecker to the prosecutor’s office and recorded three phone calls between Stoecker and Puskas. Daniewicz would later testify that he worked with Stoecker on the dialogue and theme of the conversations. During the calls, Stoecker kept circling back to the McCaw murder.

“For real though, for me, like what happened … that night, dude? Like, you didn’t [expletive] hit that dude or nothing, did you?” Stoecker asked.

Puskas said no several times, adding, “I didn’t even have anything with me.”

Stoecker asked Puskas twice why he made Puskas “wash his clothes.” Puskas said the clothes had gotten dirty because he had been out kicking car mirrors and had fallen down.

In a text message after the second call, Stoecker said, “Bro, I just got to know, was there anything on the hoodie? Should I burn it.” Puskas didn’t respond to the text.

Puskas initiated the third and final call, where the two men argued about who washed the hoodie. Puskas also said he had gone out earlier, around midnight, but was “well asleep by the time that happened to that kid.”

Puskas also said, “It was the same night, but dude, that had nothing to do with me, dude, stop it, you’re freaking me out.”

The police searched Puskas’s house on March 20, seizing his tools and his sneakers. They found no evidence connecting him to the crime.

The next day, Daniewicz gave Stoecker’s hoodie to Brandon Epstein, a digital forensic specialist with the prosecutor’s office and asked Epstein to look at the videos to see whether anyone was wearing a hoodie. In several videos taken around the time that McCaw walked through the area, there appeared to be a male, hooded figure holding something in his right hand.

The police arrested Puskas on March 21. He was charged with first-degree murder, two counts of weapon possession, and two counts of hindering apprehension or prosecution.

Puskas pleaded guilty in the vehicular homicide case on August 31, 2015, and later received a sentence of seven years in prison.

Puskas’s trial on the McCaw murder began in Middlesex County Superior Court on November 15, 2017, with Judge Dennis Nieves presiding. Puskas was represented by Joseph Mazraani, who told jurors in his opening statement that no physical evidence connected Puskas to the death. The police did a sloppy investigation and made deals with several cooperating witnesses, he said. “There is no motive for Tim to do any of this,” Mazraani said. “He doesn’t even know the young man.”

Several tenants and friends of tenants at Puskas’s house testified about the events of the night of February 14. Hasani Gordon testified that he heard an argument between Stoecker and Puskas that night. He came downstairs and saw Stoecker give Puskas a whitish-gray sweatshirt. But “it wasn’t a hoodie,” Gordon said.

Another person at the house, Danica Harpster, said she saw Puskas leave between 1:30 a.m. and 2:30 a.m., but he was wearing dark, winter clothes, “like a hat, coat, all that stuff.”

The state had created a 45-minute video using footage compiled from area surveillance cameras. Judge Nieves allowed its use, although he said the quality was “not good” and “stinks.” The video showed a person believed to be McCaw wandering westward after leaving the party. It also showed a person with a gray hoodie. But the video did not clearly depict this person on Hartwell Street, and it did not show the person said to be McCaw interacting with that person.

Judge Nieves ruled that Epstein, the digital expert, was not allowed to offer an opinion on the identity of either of these persons. A defense expert in forensic video analysis testified that it was not possible to identify McCaw as the person turning toward Hartwell Street.

A DNA expert testified for the state that Stoecker and Puskas were excluded as sources of genetic material taken from McCaw’s hands and nails. Stoecker was also identified as the source of blood found on the hoodie seized by the police.

Daniewicz testified about the investigation, how it had gone cold, and how it had restarted after he took statements from Edwards and Stoecker. The jury did not hear these statements, which were considered hearsay evidence, because Edwards did not testify and Stoecker had died in 2015.

The state had examined Puskas’s cellphone and computer and reported that he had searched for information about the murder on Hartwell Street. Detective Matthew Domanic, with the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, testified that Puskas’s cellphone usage was unusually minimal on February 15, 2014, when compared with other days that month. But on cross-examination, he said that there were three other days in that period when Puskas used his cellphone at about that same level.

The state sought to introduce recordings of the conversations between Stoecker and Puskas. Mazraani objected, saying that his inability to cross-examine Stoecker meant that Puskas could not confront a witness.

Judge Nieves allowed the jury to hear the recordings and gave these instructions: “But let me make sure that you understand what is evidential and what is not. You’re instructed that these statements or questions of … Stoecker are not to be considered for their truth by you. I instruct you that you can only consider Stoecker’s words to provide context of the conversation with Mr. Puskas, to the extent that there’s context. The weight and meaning to be given to Puskas’s words is for you and only you to decide.”

The judge would repeat this instruction in his final charges to the jury before its deliberations.

During its closing argument, the state used a PowerPoint presentation that included photos, videos, and clips of the text messages and phone calls between Stoecker and Puskas. The prosecutor said that Puskas had failed to deny essential parts of Stoecker’s side of the conversation, specifically that Puskas had gone out that night and later asked Stoecker to wash the clothes.

The jurors again heard Puskas say, “I didn’t even have anything with me,” in response to Stoecker’s question about whether he hit McCaw. Prosecutor Bina Desai referenced the video, which appeared to show a hooded man concealing an object in the pocket of his sweatshirt. “Clearly you can see that he did,” she said, adding that the sweatshirt in the video was “consistent with the one that’s in evidence” and that the person in the sweatshirt was Puskas. In her summation, Desai said jurors could identify McCaw and Puskas in the videos by their gaits, which she said were unique.

One of the hindering charges had been dismissed during trial. The jury convicted Puskas on the remaining charges on January 17, 2017. He was later sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Puskas appealed, arguing that Judge Nieves had erred in allowing the introduction of the cellphone recordings and in allowing Daniewicz to testify about his interviews with Edwards and Stoecker.

Stoecker’s statements in the phone calls didn’t just provide context, the appeal argued. They were testimonial assertions that the state used to implicate Puskas.

The appeal also said that Desai had committed misconduct by improperly testifying when she gave her closing argument. Although there had been no testimony about whether the persons in the video could be identified as McCaw and Puskas based on their gaits, Desai said the uniqueness of the two men’s gaits showed Puskas following McCaw as he turned down Hartwell Street.

Desai also reminded jurors that the state had started with a group of 17 suspects and eliminated everyone but Puskas. “As you go back there and deliberate and consider all of the evidence to render a verdict, after you whittle everything away, there’s only one person that’s left: the defendant, Timothy Puskas.”

The appeal said a juror posted on Facebook after the trial that the panel had been having trouble reaching a verdict but voted to convict after concluding that “nobody else” could have committed the crime.

“Here, where there was no forensic or eyewitness evidence suggesting Puskas’s guilt, the State instead resorted to subtraction to suggest that his guilt had been established—the other suspects investigated by the police could not have committed the crime, so Puskas must have done so,” the appeal said.

It also said that Judge Nieves should not have allowed the video surveillance to be admitted into evidence because the images were too grainy to be useful. And barring that, he should have given a limiting instruction to the jury on how to weigh the surveillance footage and further instructions to make clear the lack of identification.

The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey threw out Puskas’s conviction on May 14, 2021. It said that the state relied on inadmissible hearsay evidence to advance its case. Judge Nieves erred in allowing Daniewicz to testify about the statements from Edwards and Stoecker because the implication was that they were inculpatory. The appellate court also said that the judge erred in allowing the jury to hear the cellphone recordings, where Daniewicz played a critical role in helping Stoecker craft a conversation designed to implicate Puskas.

“The admissible evidence the State presented against defendant was hardly overwhelming,” the court said. “No physical evidence connected defendant to the crime. The surveillance videos did not show defendant and McCaw interacting in any way. Nothing in the record indicates that defendant knew McCaw or encountered him on the night of the murder. Given the circumstantial nature of the evidence of defendant’s guilt, the admission of hearsay testimony may well have been a decisive factor and cannot be considered harmless error. This is especially the case here where the prosecutor highlighted the improperly admitted testimony in her summation to the jury. Therefore, we conclude that the cumulative impact of the calls, the text message, and the testimony about how Edwards’s and Stoecker’s out-of-court declarations changed the course of the investigation raised a reasonable doubt as to whether the error in admitting this evidence contributed to the verdict.”

The court did not rule on the other issues raised in the appeal. Puskas turned down a plea deal that would have allowed him to be released from prison on time served. Prior to the retrial, Mazraani again moved to exclude the video evidence. The motion was denied, and the appellate court affirmed that decision.

At the retrial, Mazraani was able to elicit additional testimony from the medical examiner about the types and severity of injuries McCaw received. This testimony suggested that McCaw had been struck with two different weapons and bled to death quickly, much closer to the time he was discovered in the snow in the backyard on Hartwell Street. This undercut the state’s theory that Puskas was the man on the video and that he had attacked McCaw around the time these images were recorded.

The jury acquitted Puskas on February 21, 2024. He was released from prison. His sentence on the separate vehicular homicide conviction had ended on January 29, 2020.

“We are pleased that the jury finally saw this case for what it was—something the court even failed to recognize—a devastating example of what happens when cooperators and informants are not closely scrutinized, when prosecutors are not held accountable and when law enforcement fail to investigate properly,” Mazraani said in a statement.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 4/2/2024
Last Updated: 4/2/2024
State:New Jersey
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Weapon Possession or Sale, Other Nonviolent Felony
Reported Crime Date:2014
Sentence:40 years
Age at the date of reported crime:38
Contributing Factors:Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No