By Tom Moran | Star-Ledger Editorial Board
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on April 12, 2015 at 8:00 AM, updated April 14, 2015 at 2:25 PM
FILE- In this Sept. 29, 2014 file photo, a Montgomery Township police officer sits in front of the partially burned home of John and Joyce Sheridan in Montgomery Township, N.J. The Somerset County prosecutor’s office found that John Sheridan killed his wife and himself, a conclusion the family has challenged. (Mel Evans)
A dead man accused of murder never gets his day in court. Guilty or not, he is damned for all eternity, unable to answer the charges.
John Sheridan, a confidante of New Jersey governors and other elites over two generations, is one such man.
Sixth months ago, prosecutors say, he snapped just before dawn one morning and stabbed his wife Joyce repeatedly with a carving knife. He then stabbed himself as he poured gasoline around their bedroom in a wealthy suburb of Somerset County, and threw a match on it.
But we should ask ourselves: Did he really do it?
Not because Sheridan was a powerful man. And not because his four sons, one of whom is the top attorney for the state’s Republican Party, can’t accept this verdict.
We should question this conclusion because it is built on flimsy evidence that any respectable defense attorney could swat down in an afternoon. This was amateur hour in a prosecutor’s office that rarely handles murder investigations, and clearly botched this one.
If John Sheridan had lived, it’s impossible to imagine a jury convicting him knowing what we now know.
Put it another way: If John Sheridan had lived, it’s impossible to imagine a jury — any jury — convicting him, knowing what we now know.
Newly released documents and a lengthy and exclusive interview with Somerset County Prosecutor Geoffrey Soriano point to several key weaknesses in the case.
Prosecutors still can’t find the weapon they say Sheridan used to kill himself. They have no credible motive, and Soriano admits it.
The DNA evidence prosecutors used to link Sheridan to his wife’s murder weapon evaporates under closer examination: In fact, the marker they found is present in one of every two white men, according to a State Police report given to the Star-Ledger by the Sheridan family that had not been released to the public.
It gets worse.
No one dusted for fingerprints outside the master bedroom to see if an intruder entered the house through one of four unlocked doors.
The key wound to Sheridan’s neck, which nicked his jugular and is listed as a cause of death, was not made by the carving knife that killed his wife. Two autopsies concluded that only a narrow-gauge weapon could leave the mark.
But prosecutors didn’t realize that until a renowned pathologist hired by the Sheridan family produced the second autopsy. A full week after the killings, after the crime scene had been closed, investigators returned to the house to search for such a weapon, according to both Soriano and the Sheridans.
Asked how his crew could have missed such basic evidence, Soriano said that investigators had assumed the carving knife had killed both husband and wife.
They realized the mistake only after the autopsy that was paid for by the Sheridans. “That was the first time we were told that the knives we had could not have caused the wound,” Soriano says.
What they found was a blob of melted metal, which their report suggests was the narrow-gauged weapon. It turned out to be a mixture of zinc and aluminum, according to State Police. Even the prosecutor, Soriano, concedes that he has no clue if it really was once a weapon.
“Knives are not made of zinc and aluminum,” he says. “Letter openers could be.”
When pressed, he wouldn’t stand by that theory, either. Most letter openers have dull edges, and Sheridan’s wounds included slices as well as punctures.
The metal might have been a harmless piece of hardware from the armoire that fell on Sheridan during the fire, Soriano concedes.
“I don’t know what it is,” he said, finally. “It could have been anything.”
Two months after the killings, an insurance adjuster came to inspect the home and found a bag full of jewelry in a closet off the master bedroom. Investigators had somehow missed it.
So what if that bag contained a weapon, or drugs, or some other clue? Isn’t this more evidence of flat-out incompetence?
“I’m not going there,” Soriano says.
Imagine being a defense attorney in this case. No weapon in John Sheridan’s death. No motive, no history of violence in a 47-year marriage, no evidence of debt or drug use or scandal of any sort.
Bogus DNA evidence. No fingerprints check on possible intruders. And evidence of incompetence.
Michael Critchley, one of the state’s top defense attorneys, said Sheridan would never be convicted on such weak evidence.
“If he had lived, he never would have been indicted,” Critchley says. “They don’t have many homicides in Somerset County. This is not a skill set they have had an opportunity to develop.”
Is it possible this was a murder-suicide? Even Mark Sheridan, while he doesn’t believe it, concedes the answer is yes.
There is no evidence of an intruder in the home that morning. Cash and jewelry were left behind in plain sight. And several people close to Sheridan say he was acting unusual in the days before the deaths, upset by a pending report that was critical of the cardiac unit at Cooper Health System in Camden, where Sheridan served as CEO.
George Norcross, the chairman of Cooper’s board, says the report was a routine problem, not a crisis. Sheridan was upset, he said, but not to the point of a mental breakdown.
“I received an email from John the night before,” Norcross says. “It was business-like, a reasoned response to something I had written to him, and it’s hard to conceive that someone would have gone from that to an enraged person who committed murder. I always was, and continue to be, skeptical. I’m not sure this will ever be solved.”
Even Soriano doesn’t go so far as to say the pending report caused Sheridan to crack. The prosecutor’s seven-page summary of the case implies that, but when pressed, Soriano again backpedaled.
“What we tried to do is gather all the relevant evidence,” he says. “I don’t know what else was going on in his life.”
In the face of this uncertainty, and the big gaps in the evidence, the obvious answer would have been for Soriano to admit that the facts lead to no definite conclusion.
The possibilities are infinite. A murder-suicide. A burglary gone bad. A drug dealer who came for Matt, a son who lived at the home and was arrested for cocaine possession shortly after the killings. A work crew that did work on the home recently, and might have seen the ample stock of painkillers Joyce Sheridan had after a recent surgery.
But prosecutors don’t like to leave a murder unresolved. This was by far the most high-profile case to come Soriano’s way during his nearly five years as prosecutor. Before he was appointed to this job, he had served only as a municipal prosecutor handling minor cases.
And in the interview, he says that it was a priority for him to reassure the public.
Within a week of the killings, he announced there was no danger to the general public, suggesting he had already concluded this was a murder-suicide.
“Early on, no doubt about it, we concluded it was murder-suicide,” Soriano says. “There are some who say, ‘You made your mind up and shut down.’ It’s the opposite. I challenged our detectives and assistant prosecutors to go out and find the person who did this. And we tried.”
At times, Soriano sounded like a nervous rookie who didn’t want to stand behind his own conclusion. That would explain why he didn’t release even basic information in this case, probably in defiance of open records laws. Secrecy like that is a refuge for the incompetent.
In the interview, Soriano emphasized that it was the medical examiner who ruled that it was a murder-suicide, not him. “The truth is we supply him with information,” he said.
So I asked if he is personally convinced it was a murder-suicide. After several seconds of silence I found shocking, he finally squeaked out a low-volume answer: “I am.”
The medical examiner in this case, Dr. Eddy Jean Lilavois, inspires no confidence either.
He resigned from the medical examiner’s office in New York City in 1995 after a similar complaint, when he concluded the death of a 3-year-old was a homicide due to blunt-force trauma, leading police to suspect the father. Weeks later he changed the cause of death to a brain aneurism without notifying the family, police or prosecutors, the New York Times reported in 1997.
Lilavois didn’t return phone calls to discuss the Sheridan case or his history.
A family’s wounds
The final chapter in this story is not yet written. The Sheridans intend to challenge this conclusion in court, so we will all hear much more about the evidence in this case before it is finally closed.
For the time being, this family is stuck in a deep circle of hell, grieving its loss without being able to put it away and accept it. Peter Sheridan, a federal district court judge in Newark, is John’s brother.
‘It’s just really hard. You wake up in the morning and you’re thinking about John and Joyce and how unbelievable this story is,” he says. “And then you try to move through the day and you can only go a couple of hours, and John and Joyce come into your mind, and you lose track of what you’re focused on. It’s just really hard, and the boys are going through the same issue.”
Mark, 41, is the point man for the four sons in this fight. A partner at Squire Patton Boggs, he is a high-priced lawyer who handles the key fights for the Republican Party on issues like legislative redistricting.
“I’m the one with the financial wherewithal to have this fight, and I’ve dealt with prosecutors before,” he says.
His goal in the lawsuit is to change the official conclusion in his father’s death certificate so that the manner of death is “undetermined” rather than murder-suicide. The family is well off, and his father’s life insurance payments do not hinge on the cause of death, Mark says.
“This has been excruciating,” he says. “You don’t get more than a few hours away from it even when you think you’re going to have a normal day. Not just to lose both of our parents in such a horrible way, but to have to fight the people who are supposed to be investigating the deaths.”
When the target of an investigation is dead, and cannot answer, the prosecutor in effect becomes the judge and jury as well. Soriano seems to have missed that. The seven-page summary he released on March 27 is full of unsupported innuendo about motive and DNA evidence, as if he’s trying to score points with spin.
At one meeting with the family, Soriano conceded he didn’t really know what happened in that bedroom, according to Soriano and two members of the Sheridan family who were present.
“I meant that in the literal sense,” Soriano said in a subsequent interview. “I wasn’t there. … The only two people we believe right now who know what occurred were deceased.”
Amen to that. It’s a shame that Soriano could not have left it there. His goal from the start was to close the case. He seems to have forgotten that his job is to find the truth.
Tom Moran may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (973) 836-4909. Follow him on Twitter @tomamoran. Find The Star-Ledger on Facebook.