A judge has decided that jurors who are asked to decide whether a man killed his wife in New Jersey will not be told that he was convicted earlier of having killed his first wife in Ohio.
NJ.com reports that the decision last week by Judge Peter Warshaw is a significant blow to Mercer County prosecutors trying to convict 71-year-old John David Smith III of having killed 49-year-old Fran Gladden-Smith in 1991 when they lived in West Windsor. Her body has never been found, but a grand jury indicted Smith in 2019.
At that time, Smith was in prison in Ohio for killing 23-year-old Janice Hartman decades earlier. Prosecutors alleged that he killed Hartman days after their five-year marriage ended in 1974 and kept her body in a box for a few years before dumping it on a rural Indiana road, where it was found in 1980.
Despite any similarities between the two cases, Warshaw ruled that telling jurors about the Ohio conviction would unduly prejudice them against the defendant in the New Jersey case. Despite any jury instruction from the judge, a panel would “struggle” against thinking that the defendant must have acted similarly in the two cases, he said.
“Simply stated, that the defendant killed his first wife in 1974 does not prove he killed his second in 1991,” Warshaw said.
Warshaw gave a lengthy summary of the investigations of Smith and cited what he called “gaps” in the Mercer County prosecution’s case, saying there is no body and therefore no cause of death and also no eyewitnesses. He said prosecutors could seek later to present basic facts, such as the defendant’s previous marriage.
Smith reported his wife missing to West Windsor police in October 2019, saying she had left a note a week earlier that said, “Going away for a few days. Don’t forget to feed the fish.” But police found a suitcase he said she had taken with her and her relatives expressed doubts about a trip because she was recovering from hip surgery at the time.
Smith is serving a 15-year to life sentence in Ohio in Hartman’s murder and will next be eligible for parole in 2029. A year ago, a prosecutor said in court that the defendant had been offered a 20-year term to run consecutive to the Ohio term. Defense attorney Jamie Hubert said at the time that her client had not outright rejected the offer nor made a counteroffer; a message seeking comment was sent to her Sunday.