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Wrongly convicted Jersey playboy freed after more than 20 years

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A federal judge in Newark officially set the terms of Paul Kamienski’s release today, freeing the former Garfield businessman on bond after he spent more than 20 years in prison for a pair of drug-related murders he insists he didn’t commit.

U.S. District Court Judge Stanley Chesler signed the order today at the direction of three U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals judges who overturned the murder convictions earlier this month, saying the evidence didn’t support the verdicts.

Kamienski will remain under court supervision on a $1 million bond while the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office awaits a ruling from the remaining judges on the appeals court in Philadelphia. They could either support their fellow jurists’ decision or — in what would be an extremely rare move — reject it.

Last month, the three-judge panel supported the contention by Kamienski — a well-known businessman who grew up in Passaic before moving to Garfield — that the prosecutor held back evidence and fabricated half-truths in securing his conviction in Nov. 1988 as an accomplice in the drug-related Jersey Shore slayings of Barbara and Henry “Nick” DeTournay.

Late Friday, the three circuit judges ordered Chesler to set the terms of Kaminski’s release.

Overturning his conviction last month, the three-judge panel issued stern rebukes to both the Ocean County prosecutor who tried the case and fellow judges who kept Paul Kamienski behind bars.

Kamienski’s conviction was based on nothing more than “rank speculation” that he knew what was going to happen when he introduced the victims to their eventual killers, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia wrote.

Kamienski

To convict him of felony murder, “the state had to produce sufficient evidence to allow a reasonable juror to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that he knowingly participated or aided in the commission of a robbery,” which it didn’t, the judges said.

Their unprecedented decision to overturn a state conviction moves Kamienski another step closer to freedom after more than 20 years behind bars for a crime he has long insisted he didn’t commit.

It’s also a victory for attorney Timothy J. McInnis, who has fought for 10 years to win Kamiennski’s release.

“This is so rare. This is the first time that this court has ever granted [a writ of habeus corpus] in this context,” McInnis said by phone today from his Manhattan office. “I couldn’t be happier for Paul. It’s just a decision that has to be savored.”

Under the 1996 federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, a habeas writ can be granted only if a court decision clearly violated federal law. This is the first time the Third Circuit has overruled state courts based on insufficient evidence.

Kamienski has already served out the 10 years of his sentence for a drug conviction in connection with the crime.

So unless the current Ocean County prosecutor asks the full Third Circuit to reconsider or takes the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, he will go free.

There cannot be a retrial — only a reconsideration of the decisions that eventually led McInnis to a Philadelphia courtroom more than a month ago.

Kamienski, a well-known businessman who grew up in Passaic before moving to Garfield, argued that the prosecutor held back evidence and fabricated half-truths in securing his conviction in Nov. 1988 as an accomplice in the Jersey Shore slayings of Barbara and Henry “Nick” DeTournay.

Indeed, the appeals judges came down hard on then-Ocean County Prosecutor E. David Millard, who is now a state judge.

Millard’s argument was “based on some abstract notion that the crime of murder is a continuing offense that includes attempts to dispose of the victim’s body,” the judges wrote in their 27-page decision. “That is a theory that is as unique as it is baseless.”

They also had words for their robed colleagues:

“The Appellate Division conflated that proof into its inquiry into evidence of murder and felony murder. Doing so was not only error, it was unreasonable; it allowed Kamienski to be convicted on something less than proof of ‘every element of the offense’ of conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.

“It is essential . . . that there be a logical and convincing connection between the facts established and the conclusion inferred,” they wrote.

The judge in the original trial actually dismissed the murder conviction, saying the prosecutors produced no justifiable evidence of his participation in the killings.

But Kamienski still went to prison after the judge let a conviction stand against him for allegedly bringing the victims together with Toms River businessman Anthony Alongi and the convicted trigger man, Joseph Marzeno of Island Heights.

Millard’s office appealed, and a state Appellate Court reinstated the murder conviction nearly three years later. Kamienski was serving his drug conviction sentence at the time.

The state Supreme Court and federal courts rejected subsequent appeals by Kamienski, who is now 61.

His final stop: Philadelphia.

The appellate judges based their decision, in part, on six instances of prosecutorial misconduct that McInnis said were deliberately concocted to keep his client behind bars.

The judges emphasized that Millard, during closing arguments to jurors and post-trial arguments to other courts, “candidly conceded that the state had not proven either the murder or felony murder charge against Kamienski.”

For one thing, they said, the prosecutor admitted that he didn’t have evidence or testimony to prove that Kamienski knew the pair would be killed.

The state could — and did — prove that Kamienski brought the ill-fated buyers and killers together, the judges noted. He also helped dispose of the bodies once he’d found out what happened, they said.

“This case is therefore a bit of a paradox,” they wrote, noting that Kamienski’s crimes didn’t warrant a felony murder charge in the first place.

The prosecutor “invited us to connect dots that would reveal a picture of his knowledge of the robbery,” along with Kamienski’s “shared intent” to kill the couple, the decision says.

“However, based on our review of the evidence, the picture is simply not there and its existence can not be inferred absent the kind of guesswork that due process prohibits.

“Indeed, we can not accept the state’s view of the evidence without choking all vitality from the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The group gathered on Sept. 19, 1983 at Alongi’s house to exchange three kilos of coke for $150,000, prosecutors said. But Marzeno pulled out a 9mm handgun and fired 10 shots, killing both victims, Millard contended.

Kamienski insists he wasn’t there.

He was tied in to the murders after the couple’s bodies were found floating in Barnegat Bay, wrapped in blankets and tied to cement blocks. Contact information for him and Alongi were discovered on Henry DeTournay, according to a report on releasepaulnow.com.

(The site presents Kamienski’s own words and video from prison, along with thousands of pages of filed court documents, including his trial transcript.)

The only evidence against Kamienski was his ex-girlfriend’s testimony — none of which was corroborated — that the blankets used to wrap the victims were his. Despite requests by McInnis’s lawyers, Millard’s office didn’t provide results of the FBI’s examination of hair and fibers taken from the blankets before the trial, McInnis said.

The ex-girlfriend also testified that a knot on a clothesline around one of the victims in a crime-scene photo looked like knots she had seen Kamienski tie on his boat.

However, a nationally recognized forensic knot expert filed an affidavit saying the type of knots were simple and commonplace.

The ex-girlfriend was facing drug charges when she agreed to testify against Kamienski, McInnis noted. Those charges were later dropped, he said.

“Paul made a huge mistake by using drugs and associating with people who used and sold them back in 1983,” McInnis said. “He is paying an enormous price for errors in judgment he made 26 years ago.”

However, “there was never any evidence he stood to gain financially from any cocaine deals between the victims and his killers or that Paul played any part in their murders,” McInnis said.

Supervising Assistant Ocean County Prosecutor Sam Marzarella told the Associated Press that he and his staff are considering their next possible move. This could involve asking the three judges to reconsider, asking the full Third Circuit to hear the case, or appealing to the Supreme Court. More than enough evidence in the record points toward Kamienski’s guilt, he said.

The son of a World War II glider pilot, Kamienski grew up and went to school in Passaic before attending the University of Miami. From 1957 through 1970, he spent summers at his parents’ Jersey Shore getaway. Kamienski later moved to Garfield and eventually took over his family’s funeral business after his parents died.

His father was grand marshal of the contingent from Passaic, Garfield and Wallington who marched in New York City’s Pulaski Day parade in the 1950s. Paul was granted the same honor in 1979.

A 1981 Memorial Day boating accident with him at the helm killed his fiancée and, in Kamienski’s words, “marked the beginning of the end for me.” He later turned to cocaine to numb himself, he says on releasepaulnow.com.

“As I became even more out of control, I allowed myself to befriend and associate with people that a sober, sensible person would never associate with,” Kamienski adds.

They included Marzeno, a career criminal who owned a New Orleans restaurant.

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