A death penalty case is a rarity for New Jersey, after the state abolished capital punishment in 2007.
But three suspects in the fatal abduction of a teen mother from Atlantic City could face it in the case, which is being federally prosecuted, thus allowing for the penalty.
Whether death would be an option is a long and confidential process that culminates with a decision by the U.S. attorney general.
Nadirah Ruffin, 19, was forced from her cousin's Back Maryland home at gunpoint March 26, after she recognized one of the masked attackers as acquaintance Shamerria Smith, the complaint states. A search for the Atlantic City native was aided by a community effort that included marches and activists going door-to-door to find potential witnesses. Her body was found April 19 in Philadelphia's Schuylkill River. She died of a gunshot wound to the head. Authorities have not released where Ruffin was killed, nor whether they even know.
Smith, 24; Aziz Sanders, 18; and DeShawn Hicks, 19, were arrested in October and face charges including kidnapping resulting in the victim's death, a charge that makes them eligible for the death penalty.
The U.S. Attorney's Office, which is prosecuting the case, cannot comment on how far along the process is. The three suspects - along with three others charged with lesser crimes in the case - still have not been indicted. That happens after the case goes to a federal grand jury. Dates for those hearings are not released to the public.
Before even seeking an indictment in such a case, the U.S. attorney is urged to consult the Capital Case Unit, the U.S. Attorney's Manual states. This is not a requirement, although it is recommended because the unit does play a role in the process. The U.S. Attorney's Office cannot comment on whether the unit was consulted in this case.
The U.S. attorney must immediately notify the Capital Case Unit once a case is charged and provide it with necessary information, including a copy of the indictment. The Attorney General's Review Committee on Capital Cases would meet with defense counsel and representatives of the U.S. Attorney's Office to consider the case, the manual states.
The committee's recommendation is forwarded to the attorney general of the United States through the deputy attorney general. If that goes against the U.S. attorney's recommendation, a copy is sent to the office, allowing for a response that would also be forwarded to the Attorney General's Office.
If the attorney general authorizes that the death penalty may be sought, a notice cannot be filed until the Capital Case Unit has approved it.
Henry, Ronnie, and Isiah Ruffin also are charged in the case. None is related to the victim. Henry and Ronnie are accused of threatening to kill Isiah if he went to authorities with information about the kidnapping. Isiah is charged with lying to investigators.
All six suspects are jailed without bail, although Isiah Ruffin's attorney is appealing that decision. Isiah Ruffin faces the least amount of prison time, with a maximum of five years if convicted. But the fourth-degree crime does not carry a presumption of incarceration.
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