State v. Rochat

Citation269 A.3d 1177,470 N.J.Super. 392
Decision Date28 January 2022
Docket NumberDOCKET NO. A-0103-17
Parties STATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Daniel ROCHAT, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtNew Jersey Superior Court – Appellate Division

David A. Ruhnke, Montclair, argued the cause for appellant (Ruhnke & Barrett, attorneys; David A. Ruhnke, on the briefs).

Ian C. Kennedy, Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for respondent (Mark Musella, Bergen County Prosecutor, attorney; Danielle Grootenboer, Chief Assistant Prosecutor, David A. Malfitano, Chief Assistant Prosecutor, and Ian C. Kennedy, of counsel and on the briefs; John J. Scaliti, Legal Assistant, on the briefs).

Tamar Y. Lerer, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for amicus curiae Office of the Public Defender (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Tamar Y. Lerer, of counsel and on the brief; Julie Fry, Director, Forensic Science Unit, on the brief).

Before Judges Hoffman, Geiger and Susswein.

The opinion of the court was delivered by


Defendant Daniel Rochat was convicted of the murder of Barbara Vernieri and related charges and sentenced to life in prison. He appeals his convictions, primarily arguing that certain disputed DNA evidence was improperly admitted at trial. The disputed DNA evidence was obtained through a technique known as low copy number (LCN) DNA testing performed by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York (OCME). One of the samples was analyzed by OCME using its Forensic Statistical Tool (FST) software program. Defendant argues that both LCN DNA testing and FST are not generally accepted in the scientific community. We agree, and because the error in admitting the evidence was not harmless, we reverse defendant's conviction and remand for a new trial.


We derive the following facts from the record. Shortly after noon on September 14, 2012, Sinan and Holland Logan, who rented the upstairs apartment in Vernieri's residence, heard a beeping sound coming from Vernieri's downstairs living space. When they opened the door that led to the stairwell connecting the living spaces, they smelled gasoline. They descended the stairs, rang Vernieri's doorbell, and knocked on her door. When she did not respond, Sinan called her cell phone, which she did not answer. He then called her daughter who told him to call 911.

Vernieri's body was found lying face down in her sitting room. She was nude, her hair was scorched off, and she had burns on her back, arms, and legs. Investigators discovered burn patterns on the floor and determined that gasoline was "applied to areas in this room, including her body and ... set on fire." A large, suspected blood stain was found on the carpet.

Vernieri was pronounced dead at the scene. The medical examiner determined that the cause of death was blunt force head injuries

, and the manner of death was homicide.

Sergeant Gary Boesch of the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office interviewed defendant at 10:15 p.m. on September 14, 2012. Defendant told Boesch that on September 12, 2012, at about 7:15 p.m., his car overheated near Vernieri's home. He pulled over and decided to pay her an unannounced visit. When she answered the door, she was speaking on the phone to her "companion from Florida." She hung up the phone and he visited with her for about one hour. During the visit, Vernieri was cooking, and defendant drank two bottles of water but had nothing to eat. He denied drinking beer. They discussed the real estate business and relationships. Defendant asked her if she needed help moving anything, but she declined.

Defendant told Boesch that the last time he saw Vernieri was on the afternoon of September 13, 2012, when he stopped in at the Kurgan-Bergen Real Estate Agency, where Vernieri had worked for approximately twenty-seven years, to check his emails. The agency was owned by defendant's father. Before leaving, he chatted with Vernieri and gave her his phone number at her request in case she wanted to take him up on his offer to help move her things.

Defendant also told Boesch that he woke up at around 11:00 a.m. on September 14, 2012, and a little later went to see his father to borrow money from him. He then went to a deli in Woodbridge and then drove to the Jersey shore.

On September 17, 2012, investigators obtained communication data warrants for defendant and Vernieri's cell phones. On the morning of September 18, 2012, Boesch and Detective James McMorrow conducted a recorded interview of defendant at his apartment after defendant refused to accompany the detectives to their office. Defendant was advised of his Miranda 1 rights. He said Vernieri was a long-time family friend who worked for his father's real estate agency.

Defendant described that on September 12, 2012, as his car was about to overheat, he pulled over about two blocks from Vernieri's house and decided to walk to her home. He estimated that he arrived at her house at 7:20 p.m. It was the first time he had ever visited Vernieri's home. She was on the phone with a man she was seeing in Florida but invited defendant into her house. She offered defendant something to drink and gave him a bottle of water. She also offered him food, but he declined. He visited with her for about one hour.

When asked if he only had a bottle of water during the visit, defendant stated that Vernieri offered him a beer, which he drank. He clarified that he had two beers and two bottles of water. Vernieri took defendant to the basement of her home so that he could choose the beer from her basement refrigerator. Defendant commented to Vernieri that he had never been in her home before, and she gave him a "quick tour." While he was there, defendant asked her if she needed help moving anything, but she declined.

Defendant told the detectives that he saw Vernieri on September 13, 2012, when he stopped by his father's real estate office that afternoon. He spoke briefly with her; she asked for his cell phone number in case she needed help moving anything.

Defendant recounted that on September 14, 2012, he woke up between 11:00 a.m. and noon and then drove to Lyndhurst to get a bagel. Afterwards, he stopped at a condominium on Van Winkle Avenue in East Rutherford that was managed by his father. The property had been sold by defendant's father to an Egyptian family who visited the United States regularly. Defendant and his father managed the property when the owners were absent. Defendant was permitted to keep his truck there and had access to the garage area. Defendant said he kept tools and cleaning supplies there for his truck. After stopping at the condominium, defendant returned to his apartment to shower and went to his father's office to get money. He then returned home to pack for a stay at his parent's shore house.

Defendant said he went to the shore later that night after stopping to see a friend, Kristen Henke, who was house sitting for her parents in Ridgewood. He was with Henke when his father called to tell him about Vernieri.

After recounting these events, defendant changed his story and said he saw his father after visiting Henke and drove to the shore immediately thereafter. He could not remember what time it was when he drove to the shore but believed it was early that evening. He denied being on Shepard Terrace, the street where Vernieri lived, at any time on September 14, 2012.

Defendant said he was wearing either his Nike Air Max or Adidas athletic shoes when he visited Vernieri on September 12, 2012. The detectives showed defendant a photograph of an impression of an Adidas shoe taken at Vernieri's house and defendant showed the detectives Adidas shoes he may have been wearing when he visited Vernieri.

McMorrow informed defendant that his cell phone records showed he received a call at 10:39 a.m. on the morning of September 14, 2012. Defendant claimed that he did not remember getting the call. Additional calls were made to defendant's phone at 11:06, 11:10 and 11:42 a.m. but were not completed. McMorrow said that showed that defendant's phone had been turned off. McMorrow told defendant that they were able to map where his phone was and that he was on Shepard Terrace at 10:39 a.m. Defendant denied he was there. He refused to speak further with the detectives.

McMorrow then informed defendant that they had a search warrant for his apartment and that he needed to accompany them to the prosecutor's office for fingerprinting and DNA collection. Sergeant James Brazofsky, along with other officers, executed the search warrant. Brazofsky testified that Adidas sneakers retrieved from defendant's apartment matched the shoe impression found at the crime scene.

On September 19, 2012, Boesch obtained a search warrant for the Van Winkle Avenue condominium. In his affidavit supporting the issuance of a search warrant, Boesch recited the following facts:

Sinan Logan reported hearing sounds from Vernieri's residence between 10:10 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., which he attributed to Vernieri's grandchildren, and which he described as "a struggle, or two people wrestling, and a yell or a shriek."
• Vernieri's daughter reported that Vernieri had a "strange encounter" with defendant, who stopped by Vernieri's house unannounced on September 12, 2012, something he had never done before.
• Vernieri's daughter reported that her mother told her defendant had two beers while he visited, that he asked her to "take him on a walk-through to see the house," and asked her about diamond jewelry.
Joanna Connelly and Joanne DeMauro, who were both friends of Vernieri, reported that Vernieri described defendant's September 12, 2012, visit as an "odd" or "unusual event," and that Vernieri told them she offered him a beer and a sandwich, which he accepted;
• In his first statement to police, defendant denied having beer at Vernieri's house and said he only had two bottles of water and nothing to eat.
• Shoe impressions of an Adidas shoe were found at the crime scene.
• Cell

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