N.J. appeals court overturns Sayreville man's conviction for armed robbery
Saturday, 31 July 2010 21:27
PDF Print E-mail

SAYREVILLE — An appellate court has overturned a Sayreville man’s conviction for armed robbery that resulted in his being sentenced to life in prison without parole. The three-judge panel said Luis Rivera, 42, deserves a new trial because the judge allowed testimony from the two victims, one of whom died before the trial.

In its 10-page decision, the appeals court said Rivera was arrested based on statements and an identification made by the victim who died before the 2007 trial. By allowing that information into the trial "is error of such nature as to have been clearly capable of producing an unjust result."

Rivera was arrested May 27, 2006, hours after Robert and Joan Witkowski were robbed at gunpoint by a man who forced his way into their car which was parked at Raritan Liquors in Sayreville. Authorities said the robber held a knife to Joan Witkowski’s neck until Robert Witkowski took a $50 bill out of his pocket and gave it to him.

According to the appellate decision released today, the Witkowskis reported the crime to police and provided a description of their attacker — a well-spoken, clean-shaven Hispanic male, wearing a baseball cap and a tan, button-down shirt.

A South Amboy police officer, helping in the search for the robber, spotted a man climbing through the window of a room at the Circle Motor Lodge, about two miles from the liquor store. The man, later identified as Rivera, was Hispanic and wore tan pants and a white sleeveless shirt. Police arrested him after they found a $50 bill on him.A Sayreville police officer brought the Witkowskis to the motel to see if they could identify the man as the one who robbed them, but police said Joan Witkowski was too upset to even attempt an identification, the decision said.

The decision said Robert Witkowski got out of the police car, stood about 20 feet away from Rivera and told police Rivera’s looks, pants and shoes were the same as the robber’s, but not the shirt. Rivera also had no hat.

Robert Witkowski died in 2007, but his identification of Rivera was entered into evidence through the testimony of a police officer, who acknowledged it was only a partial identification, not a solid one. Joan Witkowski testified and made an in-court identification of Rivera as the person who put the knife to her throat and robbed her.

But, the appellate judges said that in her testimony, Joan Witkowski "referred to details provided to her by her deceased husband about the suspect’s clothing. This testimony raised the spector that her identification was informed by that of her deceased husband."

Rivera was sentenced to life in prison without parole because of his extensive prior criminal record that included convictions out of several counties for drug possession and distribution and theft.


Source: The Star-Ledger