FREEHOLD - Jury selection for the retrial of a mother and son in the decades-old murders of two relatives in Long Branch was scheduled to start today, but it is now pushed back more than a month as defense attorneys scour newly obtained evidence, and the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office reassigns the case to different attorneys.
Superior Court Judge Joseph W. Oxley rescheduled the retrial of Dolores Morgan and Ted Connors for May 31. However, he specifically said he was not pushing back the retrial because the Prosecutor's Office asked for more time to replace assistant prosecutors Meghan Doyle and Noah Heck with different attorneys.
Instead, Oxley said an adjournment was required to ensure Morgan and Connors get a fair trial by giving their attorneys time to review about 1,800 pages of evidence only recently turned over to them by the Prosecutor's Office.
Oxley in January said he found that Doyle and Heck blatantly violated court rules by withholding potentially exculpatory evidence from defense attorneys during the defendants' first trial, which ended with a hung jury in October. Despite that, Doyle and Heck had remained on the case until only recently. It was revealed at a court conference two weeks ago, however, that the assistant prosecutors are now being replaced on the case, but no reason was given for that.
The new assistant prosecutors handling the case are Diane Aifer and Paul Alexander, Christopher Swendeman, a spokesman for the Prosecutor's Office, said last week.
Morgan, 68, and Connors, 49, both of Delray Beach, Florida, are charged in the murders of Ana Mejia, 25, Morgan's daughter and Connors' sister, and Nicholas Connors, 51, Morgan's husband and Connors' adoptive father. Both murders occurred in the mid-1990s in Long Branch, when the defendants were living there. The mother and son were not charged wit until January 2020.
Mejia was found stabbed to death in her apartment on Dec. 9, 1994. Nicholas Connors was found shot to death in the Connors' family home on May 14, 1995.
The evidence withheld from defense attorneys during the first trial consisted of handwritten notes from 1995 indicating the star prosecution witness confessed to an acquaintance that he killed Nicholas Connors.
The star witness, Jose Carrero, testified at the trial it was Ted Connors who shot his adoptive father.
Carrero, 50, of Jackson, described as Ted Connors' best friend in the 1990s, testified at the first trial that Morgan put him and her son up to both murders and that he helped Ted Connors carry out both of them. He told the jury Morgan wanted her daughter dead to prevent her from talking to police about the family's cocaine business, and she wanted her husband killed to collect on his life-insurance policy.
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Cross-examination by defense attorneys Jonathan Petty, representing Connors, and Jason Seidman, representing Morgan, revealed numerous inconsistencies between what Carrero told the jury and what he told investigators when he was arrested in 2020 - one of the reasons Oxley cited in his decision in January to release the defendants from jail to await their retrial.
The defense attorneys have argued that, if the first jury was aware of the handwritten notes indicating Carrero had confessed to Nicholas Connors' murder, their clients might have been acquitted.
Within months of the mistrial in the case, Doyle, the lead prosecutor and chief of the prosecutor's cold case unit, was accused mid-trial of withholding potentially exculpatory evidence in another murder case, leading the prosecution to offer the defendant a deal to plead guilty to a lesser crime for which he already was eligible for release on parole, rather than face 30 years to life in prison if convicted of murder.
At the recent conference in the Long Branch double murder case, Oxley said the state wanted the retrial adjourned to "have time to reassign the case to two different prosecutors'' and allow the new prosecutors time to familiarize themselves with the case.
The judge, however, denied the request by the Prosecutor's Office to adjourn the retrial, noting it had already been pushed back once before because Doyle had a conflict with her schedule.
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"This court, based on information and facts given it with regard to the state's request, is hesitant to delay to allow new prosecutors to simply familiarize themselves with the case,'' Oxley said. "They could have and should have done that quite some time ago.''
The judge did, however, grant requests by the defense attorneys to delay the retrial. Petty and Seidman requested the adjournment because they were recently provided with some 1,800 pages of evidence in a box that turned up in early March as prosecutors were doing an audit of cold case files.
Oxley, in granting the defense request for an adjournment, said that those pages of new information "must be examined in depth'' by the defense attorneys.
"I don't know how much of that evidence is duplicative,'' the judge said. "I do not know how much of that evidence is exculpatory. …The defense is going to have to roll up their sleeves.''
Oxley said the case has the potential to send two people to prison for the rest of their lives, and that to deny the defense request for an adjournment would deny the defendants their right to a fair trial.
Kathleen Hopkins, a reporter in New Jersey since 1985, covers crime, court cases, legal issues, unsolved mysteries and just about every major murder trial to hit Monmouth and Ocean counties. Contact her at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Long Branch NJ murder retrial delayed due to new prosecutors