A mother jailed for killing her five-year-old son in 1991 has had her 2016 conviction thrown out after a review found there was not enough evidence to uphold it.
Michelle Lodzinski was convicted of killing her son, Timothy Wiltsey, 25 years after he was last seen alive, after a breakthrough in the cold case in 2014 led to her arrest.
Despite a jury finding her guilty two years later, New Jersey’s Supreme Court has now found that prosecutors failed to present enough evidence to prove that she deliberately caused his death.
Ms Lodzinski was considered a prime suspect from the outset, due to discrepancies regarding her account of what happened on the day Timothy went missing.
On Tuesday, the state’s highest court ruled in a 4-3 decision that the lack of physical evidence tying her to her son’s death was so important a factor that they had to vacate the conviction.
“After reviewing the entirety of the evidence and after giving the state the benefit of all its favourable testimony and all the favourable inferences drawn from that testimony,” the court’s majority wrote, “no reasonable jury could find beyond a reasonable doubt” that Ms Lodzinski had “purposefully or knowingly caused Timothy’s death”.
The tie-breaking vote came from Appellate Judge Jose Fuentes, who was called up to the Supreme Court after justice split 3-3 in May when one justice did not participate.
The ruling also means Ms Lodzinski cannot be tried again, which would violate a prohibition on so-called “double jeopardy” or being tried twice for the same matter, her attorney Gerald Krovatin said.
“This is a great day for the rule of law and for the proposition that convictions have to be based on evidence, not on speculation or emotion,” he said.
“Michelle is enormously grateful to everyone who has stood by her throughout this long ordeal.”
There has been no comment from the prosecutor’s office regarding the decision.
Conner JE Ouellette, an assistant prosecutor and spokesman for Yolanda Ciccone, the current Middlesex County prosecutor, said the office “must respectfully decline to comment” on the court’s decision, The New York Times reports.
Ms Lodzinski was estranged from Timothy’s father and raising him alone in central New Jersey in May 1991 when she told investigators Wiltsey had disappeared while they were at a carnival in the town of Sayreville.
She gave conflicting accounts describing strangers she had seen who could have kidnapped the boy.
His body was found nearly a year later, in a marshy area near an office complex where Ms Lodzinski had once worked.
No charges were filed and Ms Lodzinski went on with her life and had two other children. When she was charged in 2014, she was living in Port St Lucie, Florida.
Cold case investigators said a break in the case had come when Timothy’s former babysitters identified a blue blanket, found along with the boy’s body, as belonging to Ms Lodzinski.
However, during the 2016 trial and on appeal, her lawyers argued that there was no forensic evidence linking her to the blanket and that prosecutors didn’t produce enough evidence to show Ms Lodzinski purposely caused the boy’s death.
No cause of death was determined because Timothy’s body had deteriorated so badly by the time it was located.
“If you can’t find a cause of death, I submit you don’t have a homicide by definition,” Mr Krovatin told the court during arguments in October.
Ms Lodzinski was portrayed at her trial by prosecutors as a struggling young mother who felt burdened by the boy. They argued that the totality of evidence, including her evasive answers, was enough to prove her guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
An appeals court agreed in 2019 when it upheld her conviction.
The split state Supreme Court ruling in May 2021 was enough to leave the conviction in place, but the dissenting justices wrote that in modern New Jersey legal history “no murder conviction has ever been upheld on such a dearth of evidence”.
In October, the court took the rare step of agreeing to rehear the case, conceding it had made a procedural mistake by ruling on an appellate court decision that had applied an incorrect legal standard. For the rehearing, the court added appellate Judge Fuentes to serve as the tie-breaking vote.
The majority decision says: “Even if the evidence suggested that Timothy did not die by accident, no testimony or evidence was offered to distinguish whether Timothy died by the negligent, reckless, or purposeful or knowing acts of a person, even if that person were Lodzinski.”
Ms Lodzinski left prison on Tuesday night.
With reporting from The Associated Press