A Bridgeton man serving a life sentence for allegedly causing the drug-induced death of a woman at a crack house in February 2002 will get a new trial, in part because of the attire of a defense witness.

Pam Wagner, who was incarcerated pending sentencing on a burglary charge, was handcuffed and wearing an orange prison jumpsuit when she testified on behalf of Kenneth Ransome during his 2004 trial.

In a ruling issued last week, a three-judge panel of the Appellate Division of Superior Court found that Wagner’s “appearance in prison garb and handcuffs was a noticeable difference between her and the other witnesses that may have made her less credible in the eyes of the jury.” Findings by other courts indicate that prison clothing and restraints have an “inherent psychological impact” on a jury, the judges wrote.

“Had Wagner’s appearance been similar to that of the state’s witnesses, a reasonable probability existed that one or more jurors may have found sufficient credibility in her testimony to create reasonable doubt in their minds about whether (the victim) passed out within minutes of (Ransome) injecting heroin into her arm and, therefore, whether the heroin was the cause of her death,” the ruling reads.

The appellate court wrote that Wagner’s testimony was relevant to the sequence of events that occurred after the victim — 42-year Bridgeton resident Kathryn Smith — lost consciousness the night of the incident and never recovered.

The appellate court ruling affirms a retrial ruling issued in April 2012 by Superior Court Judge Darrell Fineman.

Authorities alleged that Ransome, now 56, twice injected Smith with heroin inside a reputed crack house on Cohansey Street in Bridgeton on Feb. 24, 2002. They said that Ransome made the injections knowing that Smith had just ingested cocaine.

Authorities said Ransome then dragged Smith outside in the cold winter night and left her there without calling for medical attention. The shirtless body of Smith, who died of an overdose, was eventually found by police in a North Laurel Street shed.

In April 2007, Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez sentenced Ransome to life in prison under the state’s No Early Release Act. The sentenced meant Ransome must serve more than 60 years in state prison before being eligible for parole.

During sentencing, Mendez called Ransome a “virtual crime machine.” Mendez said Ransome’s extensive criminal history includes a juvenile record, 26 adult arrests, 12 disorderly persons charges, two parole violations and 18 indictable offenses stemming from 11 different incidents.

State Department of Corrections records indicate Ransome was transferred out of the state prison system to another facility.

Contact Thomas Barlas:

609-226-9197

Senior copy editor for the Press of Atlantic City. Have worked as a reporter, copy editor and news editor with the paper since 1985. A graduate of the University of Delaware.