The New Jersey judge who urged leniency for a teenage boy accused of sexual assault because the boy came from a "good family" has faced death threats in recent days as fierce public backlash mounts.
Officials are calling for his resignation, petitions are circulating that demand he be disbarred, a protest has been scheduled for this week and threats of violence are pouring in — including the threat of rape, according to people who have spoken to the judge, James Troiano.
Troiano's comments led to a nationwide outcry and were seen as proof that the legal system had different rules for the privileged. The case has quickly eclipsed the judge's nearly three-decade career on the bench.
The decision concerned a 2017 case in which prosecutors said a visibly intoxicated 16-year-old girl was sexually assaulted by a drunken 16-year-old boy who recorded the act, and sent the video to his friends, along with a text that said, "When your first time is rape."
Troiano, 69, cited the boy's good grades and potential to attend a good college when he denied prosecutors' request that the boy be charged as an adult.
Family Court proceedings are typically closed to the public, but some of Troiano's comments, taken from a 65-page transcript of his sealed decision, were revealed when an appeals court decision was made public.
The appellate court issued a detailed 14-page ruling that warned Troiano against showing bias toward privileged teenagers. In overturning the judge's decision, the appellate court also effectively ruled that the teenager could be tried as an adult; the case, however, would first need to be presented to a grand jury to weigh whether to indict him on the sexual assault accusation.
As the calls to resign have rolled in, Troiano and his family, including his wife of 40 years, Debbie, and his son, Matthew James Troiano, a former prosecutor in Morris County, have received threatening phone calls and emails from strangers.
"The whole country, including your fellow judges and judges superior to you, are telling you that you're a bigot and a detriment to this country," read one email, shared with The New York Times, that included the hope that a family member be raped, "by a man stronger than you."
But in the controversy that has surrounded the decision, some legal analysts say nuance has been lost: In the ruling, Troiano was not necessarily arguing that the 16-year-old be excused, they said. He was making a decision about which court should conduct the trial; Troiano favoured prosecuting the teenager as a juvenile in family court, not as an adult, they said.
In New Jersey, when determining the most appropriate court for a sex charge involving someone under 18, personal factors, including whether the juvenile is likely to be a delinquent, are required, by statute, to be considered.
"Family background is directly in issue, as any psychologist will confirm," James H. Maynard, a lawyer who specialises in sex offense law, said in an email. "Because the family context, support and participation are relevant, and important, in juvenile sex-offender treatment."
Through his son, Matthew, who is a criminal attorney, Troiano declined to comment. A court spokeswoman declined to comment on whether Troiano was under any sort of review.
The case marked a turn in a long career in public service that included holding elected office and spending 29 years as a family court judge.
The son of a Newark dock worker, Troiano graduated from Rutgers University and earned a law degree from Samford University's Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1975.
Troiano started out as a lawyer in private practice in West Orange, New Jersey. He became an active member of the Republican Party in Essex County, launching unsuccessful bids in the late 1970s and early 1980s for freeholder and county executive.
He eventually moved with his wife and children to Cedar Grove, where he found political success. From 1987 to 1992, he served as councilman, deputy mayor and mayor of Cedar Grove.
He was sworn in to the Superior Court bench on November 13, 1992, after being nominated by former Governor Jim Florio. Shortly after, he told a local newspaper that he came from a "partisan political background" and that one of his basic concerns was the "transition from the role of advocate to that of arbitrator."
"I can no longer take sides," he told the Verona-Cedar Grove Times. "A judge must always be open-minded and fair."
He retired in December 2012, but continued to hear cases, working as a part-time, or "recall" judge, three days a week, filling vacancies on the bench and helping to ease a case backlog.
"He has been around a long time and that situation he is being vilified for, it's not like this is new to him," said Joseph Cicala, a Cedar Grove councilman and lawyer who said he had argued one case in front of Troiano. "He's been around long enough that I'm sure whatever decision he made, he thought through, and in his mind he was doing the right thing."
Still, there are growing calls for Troiano's resignation from a parade of elected officials, including Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, a Democrat who represents Bergen County, and Loretta Weinberg, the New Jersey Senate majority leader. There are even online petitions that call him a "menace."
The decision is emblematic, critics have said, of judicial inequity that time and again treats juveniles from privileged backgrounds, particularly white defendants, with leniency, while coming down hard on poor, minority offenders for similar crimes.
"It is such an elitist, classic outlook on life," Weinberg said. "It's amazing to me that somebody could have grown up, gone to law school, become qualified to become a judge and could have possibly uttered something like this."
She added, "What about the victim?"
Elected officials and others are weighing in.
"Not only should this judge no longer serve — as he is clearly incapable of properly fulfilling his duties — but across the country, we must call out bad actors in the system, exposing their biases, and show women and survivors that we will doggedly pursue justice on their behalf," Cory Booker, a U.S. senator from New Jersey who is running in the Democratic presidential primary, said in a statement.
Particularly galling for many — including, it appears, the judges of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, who reviewed and rebuked Troiano's decision — was the assertion that the circumstances of the assault were not "traditional" rape . That, Troiano asserted, is more violent, and he added that the girl's inebriation should be considered when determining the case.
"That the juvenile came from a good family and had good test scores we assume would not condemn the juveniles who do not come from good families and do not have good test scores from withstanding waiver applications," the appeals court decision said.
It is not the first time Troiano has presided over high-profile cases involving minors.
In 2003, in another case that made headlines, Troiano was also asked by prosecutors to try a teenager as an adult — a 16-year-old who had body slammed his 7-year-old cousin, killing him.
"We have a healthy 16-year-old doing something like this to a 7-year-old," the judge said of his decision to have the teenager, Wesley A. Thomas, tried in adult court.
"The excuse of boys being boys does not hold water in this court. We have a 16-year-old who should have known better."
And in a 2008 case, Troiano ordered three teenagers be tried as adults in the execution-style murders of three young people in a Newark playground.
Written by: Luis Ferré-Sadurní and Sarah Maslin Nir
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES