A state appeals court has reversed a lower court ruling that allowed a former Brick school official to be admitted into a diversionary program that is designed to allow nonviolent, low-level offenders to avoid jail time.
Lorraine Morgan, the former academic officer for the Brick district, was admitted into the pre-trial intervention program by an Ocean County superior court judge. An appeal by the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office was unsuccessful, but a later appeal to the state appellate division resulted in a reversal.
In pursuing the case against Morgan, prosecutors are headed into what many observers have cited as murky waters. Morgan was initially charged in an alleged scheme to provide educational services to the grandson of former superintendent Walter Uszenski for which the child did not qualify. A judge later ruled, however, that the prosecutor’s office withheld exculpatory evidence from a grand jury which showed Uszenski’s grandchild was approved for the services by a state intervention team before his grandfather even worked in Brick, and is continuing to receive similar services in his new school district in Pennsylvania. The chief prosecutor on the same case was terminated last week for reportedly “creating a hostile work environment,” but was also criticized by judges in the Uszenski case and another case for withholding evidence that could have possibly cleared a target of prosecution.
Morgan, specifically, was charged with official misconduct for her role in approving the charges for the child’s educational services.
The case gets even more complicated from there. Since Morgan entered her guilty plea, however, most of the charges relating to the alleged scam have been dropped against Uszenski after two indictments were thrown out by Superior Court Judge Patricia Roe. The decision by a two-judge panel to reject Morgan’s entry into the intervention program was rendered largely on procedural grounds.
Under state law, pretrial intervention requires a defendant to strike a plea deal and be approved for the program by the prosecutor and a state panel. In Morgan’s case, the prosecutor did not agree to her acceptance into the program, leading to the legal wrangling. If a defendant does not commit any crimes during a probationary period, the charges are dismissed. If they do commit a crime, they face the original charge plus additional offenses.
Appellate Judges Joseph L. Yannotti and Michael J. Haas “observed that the decision to accept or reject a defendant’s pretrial intervention application is essentially a prosecutorial function,” the prosecutor’s office said in a statement.
The panel wrote, “it is the fundamental responsibility of the prosecutor to decide whom to prosecute.”
The appeals court underscored what it considered a “major error” in Ocean County Superior Court Judge Wendel E. Daniels’ decision to allow entry into PTI. The court wrote that “the decision was predicated on the Judge’s own assessment of the PTI factors” and that “he ignored the nature of the offense, the facts of the case, and the impact placing defendant in PTI would have on the prosecution of her codefendants.”
In reinstating the prosecutor’s decision rejecting Morgan for PTI, the appeals panel concluded “judicial disagreement with a prosecutor’s reasons for rejection, as had occurred here, does not equate to prosecutorial abuse of discretion so as to merit a judicial override of the prosecutor’s decision.”