Wed 11 Jul, 2007 08:47 pm
TRENTON, N.J. - Almost 50 years after a police officer was slain, his widow has been ordered to pay $150,000 to the man acquitted of the murder.
Elizabeth Bernoskie says she doesn't have the money. Her lawyer calls the court ruling Tuesday "a cruel, torturous experience."
Charles Bernoskie, a police officer in Rahway with six young children, was shot to death while on duty in 1958, but it wasn't until 1999 that anyone was charged with the murder.
Robert Zarinsky, already in prison for the 1969 murder of a 17-year-old girl and a suspect in the killings of other teenage girls, was linked to the Bernoskie killing by his sister, Judith Zarinsky Sapsa. She told authorities that when she was 16 Zarinsky and a cousin said they had killed a police officer during a botched robbery.
The cousin, Theodore Schiffer, corroborated her story, admitted a role in the killing and served three years in prison.
Zarinsky, however, was acquitted. Jurors believed he did it but felt prosecutors did not build a strong enough case to prove it, the foreman said.
Elizabeth Bernoskie sued Zarinsky for wrongful death and was awarded $9.5 million in 2003. Zarinsky posted his $150,000 mutual fund as a down payment.
'I don't know what I'm going to do'
On Tuesday, a state appeals court panel ruled that Bernoskie's lawsuit should not have been allowed since Zarinsky had already been acquitted. The $150,000 must be returned, it said.
Bernoskie divided the money among her children and cannot afford to repay it, her lawyer said. Now, Zarinsky can move to seize her assets, including her home.
"I don't know what I am going to do," she told The Star-Ledger of Newark. "It is so horrible. I don't know where to turn, who to talk to."
Her lawyer told the paper the ruling was "diabolical."
"Everything is unraveled and undone," said attorney Kenneth Javerbaum. "It is a cruel, torturous experience (Bernoskie) has had. It is probably giving (Zarinsky) enormous pleasure."
The appeals court ruling puzzles me. The fact that the defendant was found not guilty in a criminal case should have no bearing on the civil suit. The appeals court judge must certainly be familiar with the O.J. Simpson case. Simpson was acquitted of a double murder, yet still found liable in a wrongful death civil suit. I have a feeling a higher court will reverse this decision.
My first thought on reading this was thetwo OJ trials. I don't know how one can be legal, but not the other.
As usual, it looks like the news media did a bad job of reporting on this matter. The appellate court opinion
(.pdf) states: "Because the delay between plaintiff's husband's death and the trial impaired defendant's ability to present a defense, we reversed the judgment and dismissed the complaint." The court went on to say that the reversal of the trial court's judgment "was required because the passage of forty years had impaired defendant's ability to defend against the allegation to such a degree that a fair determination of the merits could not be made." Nothing about the civil case being reversed because of the defendant's acquittal in the criminal case.
As for the appellate court ruling itself, it was clearly correct. If a defendant is compelled to post an appeal bond, and he wins the appeal, the bond should be returned to him. It's a shame that Mrs. Bernoskie gave all of the money away to her kids, but then she should never have given it away when there was a chance that she'd have to give it back. She has only herself to blame for the predicament in which she now finds herself.
Thanks, Joe. I suspected there must be something missing in the news account version of the case. It's that 40-year gap between trials, not the matter of guilt or innocence.