Sunday, April 15, 2007

A Thrill Killing Ten Years Later

This Thursday, April 19th, marks the 10-year anniversary of one of, if not the most, infamous crimes committed in New Jersey. On April 19, 1997, two pathetic low-rent Leopold and Leobs named Thomas Koskovitch (then 18) and Jason Vreeland (then 17) spent the evening placing phone calls to pizza shops in rural Sussex County hoping to find someone willing to deliver them a pizza at a late hour. After several unsuccessful attempts, the two called Tony’s Pizza & Pasta in the nearby town of Hardyston and placed an order for two cheese pies. The owner of the pizzeria, Giorgio Gallara (25), accompanied his employee and friend, Jeremy Giordano, (22), to the address provided by Koskovitch and Vreeland.

Unbeknownst to Gallara and Giordano, the address was for a dilapidated and abandoned house located in a very remote and rural part of Franklin Township. There, Koskovitch and Vreeland lay in wait armed with handguns that they had stolen from a gun store three weeks earlier. When Gallara and Giordano pulled up to the house, Koskovitch and Vreeland killed them both in a hail of gunfire. The pizzas were casually discarded near the victims’ car.

Koskovitch and Vreeland were suspected almost immediately. After all, both had previously bragged to acquaintances about their desire to experience what it would feel like to kill someone. After his arrest, Koskovitch nonchalantly explained to the detective in a recorded interview that he and Vreeland had enthusiastically embraced after the killings. When directly asked if he felt any remorse for his crimes, Koskovitch said no because he was unacquainted with either victim. Following a lengthy guilt-phase trial in 1999, a jury concluded in a separate proceeding that his crimes warranted the punishment of death (Vreeland’s age spared him a capital trial).

So much for the crimes. In anticipation of the 10-year-anniversary of the event, today’s Newark Star Ledger has a profoundly moving account of the incalculable suffering and astounding perseverance of the victims’ families during the previous decade. By enshrining the memories of the victims in various endeavors, both the Gallaras and Giordanos have sustained themselves and drawn previously unknown reserves of strength. According to the story, both families have finally achieved something akin to tranquility, which is nonetheless unsettled by what seem to them to be interminable legal proceedings occasioned by the filings of both Koskovitch and Vreeland.

On a purely personal level, the story evoked some very intense memories. The morning after the trial judge signed Koskovitch’s death warrant on May 7, 1997, I was notified by my bureau chief in the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice that I had been assigned to represent the State in Koskovitch’s automatic appeal to the Supreme Court of New Jersey. My first responsibility was to immediately persuade the Court to vacate a bizarre order issued by the trial judge to the effect that unless the sentence of death was carried out in five years, it would automatically be vacated. The trial judge reasoned that by remaining on New Jersey’s death row one minute beyond the fifth year, Koskovitch would necessarily endure cruel and unusual punishment. Two months later, the Supreme Court summarily vacated the order. The trial judge, incidentally, had placed on the record prior to Koskovitch's trial his personal perspective that the death penalty was in inappropriate punishment.

I was first introduced to Loretta and Joseph Giordano, Jeremy’s parents, by the trial prosecutor, Mike Briegel, just before oral argument was set to begin. Both appeared tense and physically drawn but otherwise emotionally composed. I briefly conveyed by condolences before heading to counsel table. It was an admittedly awkward encounter, made more so by the fact that Loretta Giordano had testified before the jury at the penalty phase of the trial that neither she nor her husband supported capital punishment for religious reasons. Not only was I going to forcefully argue that Koskovitch’s death sentence should be upheld, but that the trial judge had clearly erred by eliciting testimony regarding the personal views of the victim’s family.

In any event, the Supreme Court of New Jersey subsequently upheld Koskovitch’s murder convictions. But, in an acrimonious 4-3 split, the Court vacated the death sentence due to perceived prejudicial instructional errors. Notably, two of the four justices in the majority wrote a separate concurring opinion that Koskovitch’s age and egregious upbringing rendered death an inherently disproportionate punishment despite the egregious nature of the slayings he had perpetrated. Koskovitch remains imprisoned for life with no prospect for early parole.

When all is said and done, I wish the Giordanos and Gallaras the best in their ongoing and evidently successful efforts to reclaim some semblance of what Vreeland and Koskovitch so brutally and callously took from them almost ten years ago.

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