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Jesse Timmendequas Trial: 1997

Jesse Timmendequas Trial: 1997

Defendant: Jesse Timmendequas
Crimes Charged: Murder, kidnapping, rape, sodomy
Chief Defense Lawyers: Barbara R. Lependorf, Roy B. Greenman
Chief Prosecutors: Kathyrn Flicker, Lewis Korngut
Judge: Andrew J. Smithson
Place: Trenton, New Jersey
Date of Trial: May 5-June 20, 1997
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death

SIGNIFICANCE: Because of the publicity in the wake of Megan Kanka's murder, most states now require that citizens be notified in advance if a sex offender plans to move into their neighborhood.

In July 1994 seven-year-old Megan Kanka was living in Hamilton Township, New Jersey, with her parents and two siblings. Unknown to them, twiceconvicted sex offender Jesse Timmendequas had moved in across the street, along with Brian Jenin and Joseph Cifelli, two men with similar records whom he had met in prison. On July 29, Mrs. Kanka took a nap at about 6:30 p.m. While she slept, Megan went down the street to visit a friend, and when Mrs. Kanka awoke she could not find her. The Kankas began asking their neighbors if they had seen Megan, and a number said that they had seen the girl. Timmendequas told the Kankas he had seen Megan with a friend earlier in the day when they stopped to talk to him about his new boat, which was parked in front of his house. Soon after Megan was discovered to be missing, the Kankas called the police. They arrived at 8:49 p.m., searched the Kankas' property, and questioned the neighbors, including Timmendequas. Now he said that he had seen Megan riding her bicycle about 2:30 p.m.This conflicted with his earlier statement, so the police asked him if he had seen her at any other time that day. He replied that he had also seen her riding her bicycle between 5:30 and 6:00, but that his roommates were out shopping and would not have seen her. At 10:00 p.m. the police searched the house, boat, and property where Timmendequas lived and found nothing.

At 12:30 a.m., detectives got Cifelli's mother's written consent to search the house again, and they also began questioning the three men separately. Although the detectives found nothing incriminating in the house, they became suspicious of Timmendequas because he was sweating and shaking as they questioned him. Timmendequas's nervousness, his lack of alibi for the time of Megan's disappearance, and the fact that he changed his story about when he had seen her prompted the police to take him to the station for further questioning.

Clues and Conflicting Stories Point to Suspect

At the station, Timmendequas waived his right to counsel and agreed to a search of his truck, which he had driven to the police station. It contained a piece of black felt and a brown toy chest. During the search, Timmendequas volunteered that he had cut his hand earlier in the day on a curtain rod in the truck. He did have a wound on his palm, but the police found no blood or skin on the rod.

Timmendequas then went home, promising to return the next day. Meanwhile the police searched his boat and nearby garbage cans. In the trash they found a knotted rope with what appeared to be dried blood on it, and the waistband to a pair of small pants. Mrs. Kanka identified them as fragments of Megan's clothing.

On July 30 police again questioned Timmendequas, who was by now their main suspect. He wrote a second statement about his activities that conflicted with his previous statement written the night before. Detectives questioned him for another six hours. Finally he asked to speak to his roommate, Brian Jenin. When Jenin entered the room he told Timmendequas, "They got you, they got you, they got you. You're going to need a friend on the outside and I'll be that friend." Timmendequas put his head down and said, "She's in Mercer County Park." He agreed to lead the police to the body, which he had dumped near a portable toilet in a weeded area of the park three miles from Megan's home.

Timmendequas Convicted

In May 1997, the 36-year-old Timmendequas went on trial in Trenton, New Jersey. In her opening statement, the chief prosecutor told the jury that Timmendequas had lured Megan into his house by promising to show her his puppy. According to his own statements he started to touch Megan and she screamed and tried to get away. Timmendequas was afraid that Megan would tell her mother so he grabbed her, ripping her shorts, then put a belt around her neck and pulled her back into his room. At some point in the struggle she bit Timmendequas's hand, and she fell and began bleeding. To keep the blood from getting on the carpet, Timmendequas put two plastic bags over her head and stuffed her into a large toy box he had converted into a tool chest.

The medical examiner testified that Megan had been deliberately strangled and sexually assaulted. Police detectives testified that Timmendequas had admitted to sexually assaulting Megan when they confronted him with the medical evidence, and that he had described the assault to police in a "flat and unemotional tone." He had also confessed that he had been "slipping for a while" and had been "getting those feelings for little girls for a couple of weeks or a couple of months."

Timmendequas did not testify or present any witnesses during the guilt phase of the trial. His defense was presented through cross-examination and argument, and he was convicted on all counts.

Defense Pleads Mitigating Factors

During the penalty phase of the trial Timmendequas presented two witnesses: a forensic social worker and a clinical and forensic psychologist, both of whom testified to mitigating factors. Each described Timmendequas's childhood as extremely disfunctional. His mother was a promiscuous alcoholic who had had 10 children by seven different men. Several of the children had been placed in foster care or adopted. Timmendequas's brother testified that he arid Jesse had both been repeatedly molested by their father, Skip, and that they had both witnessed Skip rape a seven-year-old girl when Jesse was eight or nine.

The psychologist also testified, on the basis of trial testimony, that Timmendequas was under "extreme emotional disturbance" when he killed Megan, that he was "unraveling psychologically," and that his ability to understand the nature of his actions "was very much impaired." Finally, he asserted that the defendant's intent to commit sexual assault did not mean that he intended to murder Megan. He testified that the defendant had killed Megan as a reflexive response to the panic he felt when she attempted to flee. Thus the murder, according to the psychologist, was not premeditated.

The prosecution had consistently argued that Timmendequas had "wanted to kill, meant to kill" Megan from the time he abducted her. It relied on evidence introduced in the guilt phase to support its argument that sufficient aggravating factors existed to warrant the death penalty. The prosecution's expert argued that there was no evidence either of extreme emotional disturbance, or of mental disease or defect that might have been mitigating. The prosecution challenged the defense's portrayal of the defendant's childhood, pointing out that there were no witnesses outside the family who could substantiate the stories of abuse and neglect, and in fact that some witnesses disputed the portrayal of Timmendequas's mother as a drunken slattern. In the end the jury found that the prosecution had proven both aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt and sentenced Jesse Timmendequas to death.

After Timmendequas's conviction his attorney appealed the decision, alleging several procedural errors. Among them were the trial court's failure to change the venue for the convenience of the victim's family and its decision to empanel a jury from another county instead of moving the trial, and the jurors' prior knowledge, or suspicion, of the defendant's criminal history. The defense also claimed prosecutorial misconduct, citing the prosecutor's repeated references to the defendant's sexual perversion, lack of emotion, and lack of remorse after the crime, and the prosecutor's overly emotional summation in the guilt phase of the trial. But the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed both the conviction and the death sentence.

As a result of Megan's death, her mother, Maureen Kanka, began a campaign for laws requiring notification of the presence of sex offenders in communities. "Megan's Law" gained both state and national acceptance, and in 1996 President Clinton signed a bill encouraging states to adopt such notification legislation.

Carol Willcox Melton

Suggestions for Further Reading

Fodor, Margie Druss. Megan's Law: Protection or Privacy (Issues Forum). Berkeley Heights, New Jersey: Enslow Publishers, 2001.

Walsh, Elizabeth Rahmberg. Sex Offender Registration and Community Notification: A "Megan's Law" Sourcebook. Kingston, New Jersey: Civic Research Institute, 1998.

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