Was the alleged killing of his estranged wife and efforts to kill her boyfriend an intentional rage-fueled act, or was former Newark police officer John Formisano's encounter at his former Jefferson home not a calculated decision, but rather, a result of his altered mental state?
It will be up to a jury of 12 people — eight women and four men — to decide the fate of the 52-year-old who if convicted of a first-degree murder charge, could spend life behind bars. During the eight-day trial, following strict instructions by state Superior Court Judge Michael Gaus to keep tight-lipped on the specifics of the case even to close family members, jurors were whisked away at about 2 p.m. on Friday to begin weighing their options.
Jurors must make a unanimous decision on whether they find Formisano guilty or not guilty in the death of his wife, Christie Solaro-Formisano, 37, and the attempted murder of her boyfriend, Timothy Simonson, whose tense testimony for the first time in court on Tuesday shed light on the life-changing actions Formisano allegedly took when he found him in his former bedroom the evening of July 14, 2019. Because Formisano's attorneys have levied a diminished capacity defense, jurors will also be allowed to consider lesser charges against Formisano.
Should jurors decide Formisano did not commit murder, which is an act with purpose and intent and not in the heat of the moment, they can consider a lesser charge of passion provocation, aggravated or reckless manslaughter. They can also consider a lesser offense of aggravated assault with serious bodily injury should they disagree on an attempted murder charge for Simonson's injuries.
The jury will also render verdicts on six remaining charges: two counts of possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, official misconduct, two counts of endangering the welfare of a child and hindering apprehension/prosecution.
Opening arguments kicked off the trial on Sept. 21, with jurors listening to witness and expert testimony presented by Christopher Schellhorn, a supervising assistant prosecutor, and Tara Wang, an assistant prosecutor, both in Morris County. Prosecutors called five experts to the stand including specialists in shooting reconstruction, blood stain patterns and firearms operability and had the last say when they introduced rebuttal expert, Dr. Louis Schlesinger, a forensic psychologist.
Anthony Iacullo, Formisano's defense attorney, introduced just one expert, but the clinical psychologist, Dr. Gerard Figurelli, presented evidence he said left Formisano incapable of knowingly wanting to kill his estranged wife.
Explosive closing arguments
While prosecutors in criminal trials have the burden to prove every element of a crime without reasonable doubt, closing arguments give both defense and prosecutors a chance at instilling key points jurors can take away into the deliberation room, where a sheriff's officer keeps close guard to keep influences — journalists, friends or family —away.
Iacullo asked the jury if they were convinced Formisano was of a clear mind, and not suffering a mental defect, after testimony by two doctors gave different opinions. Figurelli, who prosecutors in April unsuccessfully sought to bar from giving testimony at trial, opined on Wednesday that Formisano had suffered a short but severe dissociative stress reaction when he was ascending a flight of stairs and his wife gave him a push and told him "he's here," a reference to Simonson being in their former bedroom.
Coupled with undiagnosed major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, stemming from incidents he witnessed as a police officer, Formisano was left particularly vulnerable to the reaction, Figurelli said. His actions, the doctor said, were not done purposely or knowingly as a result of a mental defect — a defense often called diminished capacity.
Formisano previously told police he "blacked out" the moment he walked up the steps inside his former home during a late-night, unplanned visit to allegedly drop off his daughter's glasses and found his wife in a bathrobe with her hair and makeup done. Formisano described an out-of-body experience, with his own self "looking over his own shoulder," Iacullo said, and Simonson having what he called a lightning bolt as a head.
On Thursday, Schlesinger, who also served as rebuttal expert for prosecutors during ex-Olympian Michael Barisone's April trial, hit hard, opining that Formisano had acted with "clear, purposeful intent" when he allegedly killed his wife. He said he found that Formisano had issues with self-esteem and a compulsive need for control, neither of which would inhibit his ability to form intent. He did not diagnose him with major depressive disorder or PTSD, but found he has mild depressive disorder, a common reaction to someone going through a divorce, and did have a mild stress reaction, though, at the time the shots were fired.
Iacullo tried to convince the jury that Schlesinger failed at doing his own work and instead relied on prosecutors telling him a total of 15 shots had been fired and how many "hit their target," despite a medical examiner unable to say exactly how many shots had been fired.
"You have to evaluate his believability, his credibility," Iacullo said. "He's making a reference and drawing a conclusion that is wrong. It goes to his character, weighing his credibility as a witness."
He also reiterated to the jury that Schlesinger had not "treated" any patients since 2008 and instead focused on assessments and testing to come to his conclusions.
Schellhorn painted a picture for the jury of the "hail of gunfire and bloodshed" that ricocheted through the quiet, sleepy community. Using images and video to reiterate his points, Schellhorn spoke of the deliberateness of Formisano's actions after his verbal controls over her had failed and he had turned to violence.
Formisano did not shoot "randomly," Schellhorn reiterated, but rather pulled the trigger more than a dozen times at Solaro-Formisano and Simonson in three different locations. He ran after Solaro-Formisano to gun her down, before he walked back to his car to make deliberate attempts to hide evidence, such as his cellphone and clothing, he said.
Schellhorn also took a jab at Figurelli's findings, stating that he had failed to obtain Formisano's medical records and had not considered any actions Formisano took before or after the incident, only evaluating his state of mind at the time of the shooting using outdated testing procedures.
Formisano did not act with passion, but rather, with intent when he went to his former home that evening, Schellhorn said.
"Christie Formisano's life was not his to control and her life was not his take," Schellhorn said.
Although stoic and attentive throughout the trial, jurors often darted their eyes to catch Formisano's reaction to a series of images that were shown during the trial, including Solaro-Formisano's body covered on a neighbor's step and autopsy photos that were presented in unfiltered detail by Dr. Di Wang, the medical examiner for Morris, Sussex and Warren counties. Jurors also watched video of Formisano's incriminating statements to police after the shooting.
Formisano often donned a pair of khakis and a dark navy blazer and constantly pushed up a pair of black-rimmed glasses, but never showed emotion nor turned to look behind him at the nearly dozen family and friends of Solaro-Formisano, including her mother, father and brother, who attended daily. He was engaged in taking notes on a large yellow legal pad and would often turn his chair to view all media presented on a large screen next to him.
Before jurors were excused at about 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Formisano turned and smiled at a small group of supporters and waved to them. The jury will return to continue deliberations on Monday morning.
Lori Comstock can be reached on Twitter: @LoriComstockNJH, on Facebook: www.Facebook.com/LoriComstockNJH or by phone: 973-383-1194.
This article originally appeared on New Jersey Herald: Jefferson NJ murder trial of ex-Newark police officer nears finish