A man imprisoned for raping and strangling a Long Island woman in 2013 had his conviction overturned by a panel of state appellate judges who concluded that a DNA match was not enough to pin him to the grisly crime, the Daily News has learned.
The Second Judicial Department Appellate panel on Thursday dismissed the indictment against Fernando Romualdo for the murder of 23-year-old Sarah Strobel.
Strobel was found dead in a wooded field at Froehlich Farm Nature Preserve in Suffolk County on Oct. 3, 2013. She was lying face down, her pants had been pulled to her knees and her shirt was yanked up.
Her injuries indicated she had been strangled within a day before her body was discovered.
Romualdo, 32, became a suspect after the Suffolk crime lab matched his DNA to swabs taken from Strobel’s body as part of a sexual assault kit.
His DNA was already in the state’s database because he had been convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for the unrelated rape of a 16-year-old girl.
Romualdo was charged with Strobel’s murder and rape in 2015. He was convicted two years later and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
But the appellate judges found that prosecutors during the trial couldn’t offer any other evidence besides Romualdo’s DNA to prove that he was near the crime scene, or that he and Strobel had sex around the time of her murder.
“At most, the DNA evidence established, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant had sexual contact with the victim at some unspecified time and place,” the panel wrote.
“Viewing the trial evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, we find that it was legally insufficient to establish, directly or circumstantially, that the defendant intentionally caused the victim’s death.”
Suffolk County Judge Barbara Kahn could have dismissed the indictment on those grounds, the appellate judges said. “We find that the verdict of guilt was against the weight of the evidence,” they wrote.
Romualdo told detectives he didn’t know Strobel. His defense lawyer acknowledged that Romualdo may have had sex with Strobel, but didn’t kill her. The attorney called no witnesses in Romualdo’s defense during the trial.
Appellate Judges Cheryl Chambers, Jeffrey Cohen and Linda Christopher — who formed the majority ruling — also ordered the case sealed.
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“Although an acquittal on the charge of murder in the second degree would not have been unreasonable ... I find that the weight of the credible evidence supports the jury’s finding of guilt,” Roman wrote.
Romualdo is currently serving time at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora. A hearing to seal the case is expected within five days.
“Everyone at the Legal Aid Society of Suffolk County is happy that the Appellate Division Second Department was able to formally recognize the lack of evidentiary proof that Mr. Romualdo committed any crime against Ms. Strobel,” said Felice Milani of the Legal Aid Appeals Unit. “Her death remains a tragedy that needs to be solved.”
A spokeswoman for Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini said Friday they plan to appeal the ruling.
“We respectfully disagree with the Second Department’s decision to overturn this jury conviction, and will be applying to reargue our position before the Appellate Division and seeking leave to the Court of Appeals," Sini’s spokeswoman said.