Saturday, August 1, 2009

Year After Murder, Staten Islander Admits He Killed Ex

From the Staten Island Advance by Jeff Harrell:

A Tottenville man finally has bowed under the weight of evidence that he killed his girlfriend and dumped her body in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey.

Thomas Paolino, 20, of Sylvan Court, pleaded guilty yesterday to a count each of first-degree aggravated manslaughter and third-degree hindering apprehension stemming from the strangulation and stabbing death of Jessica Tush, 19, whose body was found on April 3 of last year in a shallow grave in Wharton State Forest, about 100 miles from.

Burlington County, N.J., prosecutors recommended Paolino serve 23 and one-half years in prison on the count of aggravated manslaughter -- a reduced count under the plea agreement from an initial top charge of murder -- and five years for hindering apprehension.

The sentences would be set to run concurrently. Burlington County Judge James J. Morley said the deal calls for Paolino to serve a few days shy of 20 years before he would be eligible for parole.

"I'm not happy with the 23 and one-half years. He'll only be 39 years old when he can get out," said the victim's mother, Dina Tush, of Great Kills, noting that Burlington County prosecutors and New Jersey police "did the best job they possibly could ... an excellent job" on the case.

"The outcome doesn't change for us," Mrs. Tush said. "My daughter is dead, so it didn't matter whether we went to trial or not. I just didn't want to see him walking."

Paolino could have faced up to 30 years to life had he been convicted of murder. New Jersey sentencing guidelines cap a life sentence at 75 years, and the convict must serve 85 percent of the time before parole eligibility, a spokesman for the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office said.

"While we recognize that no amount of punishment will ever lessen the pain of the Tush family, this sentence will remove the defendant from society for a substantial number of years," Burlington County Prosecutor Robert D. Bernardi said.

Paolino is due to return to Burlington County Court Sept. 18 for sentencing. The judge revoked the killer's $1.2 million bail.

"(The plea) spares the family on both sides ... from reliving the ordeal beyond what they even know now," Paolino's attorney, Louis Diamond, said outside the courtroom.

Had Paolino gone to trial, Diamond noted prosecutors were armed with "overwhelming" evidence ranging from cell phone and E-ZPass records, to witnesses who saw Ms. Tush leave her job at the Staten Island Mall with Paolino on the afternoon of the killing, to hikers who discovered the gravesite and saw Paolino fleeing the scene in his sport utility vehicle, and to physical evidence gathered by police who scoured Paolino's car for traces of blood, DNA, and skin cells found under the victim's nails.

An autopsy revealed that Ms. Tush, of Great Kills, died as a result of asphyxia due to strangulation and sharp injuries to the neck.

A detective with the New Jersey State Police Major Crimes Unit compared the amount of evidence compiled against Paolino to "a perfect storm."

Mrs. Tush lowered her head sobbing as Paolino, dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, answered a series of questions -- posed by his co-counsel, James Fagen, and the judge -- in a soft voice that was barely audible.

Paolino admitted he was with Ms. Tush that day, and that an argument turned physical and violent.

He replied, "I don't know, exactly," when asked for a specific location of the wooded area where Ms. Tush was buried. "It was where we had camped before," Paolino said.

Paolino then answered "yes" to choking Ms. Tush, stabbing her in the neck with a knife and putting the body in a shallow grave.

"He gets his life back at age 39 when my daughter didn't do nothing wrong," Jessica's father, Victor Tush said. "We just want to make sure he doesn't get out and do this to another family."

Paolino has been locked up since his arrest April 3 last year and is credited with more than one year behind bars. In actual time served under the deal, Paolino would become eligible for parole in 2028.

His family members who attended the hearing declined comment.

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