By Laura Ly, CNN
The murder conviction of a New Jersey mother who was charged in her son’s killing 23 years after he vanished has been vacated by a panel of judges, according to court documents.
Michelle Lodzinski’s murder conviction was vacated by the New Jersey Supreme Court on Tuesday by a vote of 4-3 due to a lack of proper evidence, documents state.
“We now hold that after reviewing ‘the entirety of the evidence and after giving the State the benefit of all its favorable testimony and all the favorable inferences drawn from that testimony,’ no reasonable jury could find beyond a reasonable doubt that Lodzinski purposefully or knowingly caused Timothy’s death,” Justice Barry Albin wrote.
Lodzinski was released from prison later Tuesday, her attorney Gerald Krovatin told CNN.
“This was a great day for the rule of law and the principles that matter to us — that convictions have to be based on evidence, and not based on speculation or emotion,” Krovatin said. “I thought the Supreme Court … got it exactly right.”
Krovatin said he met with Lodzinski at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility upon her release.
“I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet with her. She’s really stunned that this all happened to her today. When I first broke the news to her this morning, she just said, ‘oh my God’ and started crying,” Krovatin said. “She’s been in jail for more than seven years on this case. It’s understandably very emotional for her.”
Lodzinski reported her five-year-old son Timothy missing on May 25, 1991, telling police he disappeared at a carnival. Some of his remains were found almost a year later. A medical examiner was not able to determine a cause of death.
In August 2014, 23 years after Timmy vanished, Lodzinski was arrested in Florida on a murder charge in connection with his death, after a routine cold-case review sparked a new investigation into the case. A grand jury convicted her of murder in 2016 and Lodzinski subsequently filed a motion for reconsideration, court documents state.
Albin acknowledged that while Lodzinski gave “shifting accounts about Timothy’s disappearance that cast doubt on her credibility,” she never made an incriminating admission, nor did any forensic evidence tie her to her son’s death.
“Searches of her house, her car, and her garbage generated no evidence of guilt. No one ever observed Lodzinski abuse Timothy,” Albin wrote. He added that the medical examiner was not able to determine Timothy’s cause of death and said, “By most accounts, Lodzinski was caring and devoted to her son, though challenged by the demands of everyday life as a young single mother.”
“Even if the evidence suggested that Timothy did not die by accident, no testimony or evidence was offered to distinguish whether Timothy died by the negligent, reckless, or purposeful or knowing acts of a person, even if that person were Lodzinski. No conviction can be founded on speculation or conjecture. We may never know the truth about what happened in this case. The only issue is whether the evidence — presented in the light most favorable to the prosecution — supports a finding beyond a reasonable doubt that Lodzinski purposely or knowingly caused the death of her son. By that standard the conviction cannot be sustained,” Albin wrote.
Three justices dissented in Tuesday’s opinion, stating that they considered Lodzinski’s acquittal to be “unwarranted and unjust,” and that it “undermines the jury’s role at the heart of our criminal justice system.”
“If any reasonable jury could convict a defendant with the evidence viewed and inferences drawn favorably to the State, appellate judges must respect that verdict, no matter how strongly they disagree,” the dissenting justices wrote.
Lodzinski has two sons who still live in Florida, her attorney said, adding that she’s “anxious to get back as soon as she can.”
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CNN’s Hayley Wilson contributed to this report.