The state’s highest court has overturned a lower court ruling and reinstated a murder conviction.
Defendant Fernando Romualdo, 33, was convicted in September 2017 in Suffolk County court of second-degree murder.
The 23-year-old female victim was found in a wooded area on Oct. 3, 2013, and Romualdo was charged more than two years later.
Romualdo’s trial attorney called no witnesses. He told the jury in his opening statement and in his summation that, while his client may have had sexual contact with the victim, he did not kill her.
In November 2020, the conviction was overturned and the indictment dismissed in a split decision by the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court, Second Department.
“At the trial, the People presented no evidence placing the defendant at or near the scene of the crime, or linking him in any way to the victim, during the critical time frame in which the murder was believed to have occurred. Nor did the People offer any evidence showing that the sexual contact between the defendant and the victim occurred at or near the time of the murder,” the majority wrote.
“At most, the DNA evidence established, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant had sexual contact with the victim at some unspecified time and place,” according to the Second Department’s decision.
Justice Sheri S. Roman dissented.
“I respectfully disagree with the conclusion of my colleagues in the majority that the evidence was legally insufficient to support the defendant’s conviction of murder in the second degree, and that the verdict of guilt was against the weight of the evidence,” Roman wrote.
“Here, although an acquittal on the charge of murder in the second degree would not have been unreasonable, upon reviewing the rational inferences that may be drawn from the evidence, and evaluating the strength of such conclusions, I find that the weight of the credible evidence supports the jury’s finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” she wrote.
In a decision released Thursday, the New York State Court of Appeals reversed that Second Department’s decision.
“At trial, the People presented proof demonstrating that the victim was sexually assaulted at the time she was killed, including photographic evidence that the victim was found with her pants pulled down and her shirt pulled up, testimonial evidence from the medical examiner that the victim sustained blunt force trauma to the area of her thigh adjacent to her vagina ‘around the time’ of her death, and forensic evidence that the victim was found with semen on her cervix, vulva, and perianal area, and that the semen had not transferred to her clothing. DNA evidence established that the semen found on the victim’s body belonged to defendant,” the Court of Appeals wrote.
Romualdo, who lived less than one mile from the crime scene at the time of the murder, gave a false statement to the police, claiming that he did not know the victim and had never had sexual contact with her, according to the decision.
“A rational jury could have inferred from the medical evidence presented at trial that the victim was sexually assaulted immediately prior to her death. Inasmuch as defendant’s semen was found on the victim’s genitalia, the semen had not transferred to the victim’s clothing, which was still in a state of disarray when her body was found, defendant lived in close proximity to the crime scene, and defendant falsely denied knowing or having sex with the victim, a rational jury could conclude that defendant was present at the time of the victim’s death and killed the victim during the course of, or immediately after, sexually assaulting her,” the court wrote.
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