Debra Loggia accepts that her Uncle John will die soon. What the Evesham woman can’t accept is he could die in prison, although he has not been convicted of a crime.
During his year-plus incarceration awaiting trial, Teti was diagnosed with lung cancer, which has spread to his bones. His health has deteriorated to the point that he was hospitalized for a month earlier this year and learned he has no hope for recovery. The hospital stay delayed his February trial until this month.
Since before doctors delivered the terminal prognosis, Loggia and her husband have sought to have Teti released to their custody. The couple are willing to take him into their home and assume the cost of his medical care, which so far has amounted to more than $340,000 for Burlington County taxpayers, according to documents obtained through an Open Public Records Act request.
“It’s like being in a Kafka novel. There is no due process here,” Loggia said. “My uncle will die in jail without ever having been given his constitutional right to a trial.”
The Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office has fought five bail motions to release Teti, who has a $250,000 cash bail, and two judges have agreed that he should remain incarcerated until trial.
A final conference is scheduled before Superior Court Judge Jeanne T. Covert on Monday, when she will determine if his trial can move forward or if a motion should be filed seeking to dismiss the charges based on Teti’s health.
But as far as Teti's stepson, Peter Corelli, is concerned, he is where he belongs.
“He is an attempted-murder suspect where all the facts point to him,” he said. “As far as we’re concerned, he created a heinous act on my mom, and since March 8 he is where he should be — sick or not sick.”
The situation is an example of what the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office hopes to avoid under the new statewide bail reforms, which took effect Jan. 1. Under the new rules, nearly all defendants are expected to be released without monetary bail after an assessment at their first court appearance, where it will be determined if the person is a flight risk or otherwise community threat. The rules also allow alternatives to incarceration, such as house arrest and electronic monitoring for defendants released on bail.
New rules don't apply
But the new bail rules don’t apply to Teti because he was arrested last year; Burlington County didn’t use electronic monitoring prior to Jan. 1, when bail reform took effect, according to a court administrator.
New Jersey also does not have a specific compassionate release law or court ruling for criminal defendants who are accused — but not convicted — of crimes.
The number of deaths in local jails increased nationally by 18 percent, from 889 to 1,053, between 2011 and 2014, the largest increase since 2008, according to a U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report. Illness-related deaths accounted for more than half of all deaths in local jails in 2014, with heart disease as the leading cause, followed by AIDS-related illness, according to the report.
In New Jersey, the number of reported local jail deaths dropped between 2003 and 2011 from 38 to 20, before ticking back up to 34 deaths in 2014, the most recent federal justice statistics available.
Teti was the only inmate with a terminal illness incarcerated at the Burlington County Jail in Mount Holly until recently, when he was transferred to a state prison that could meet his medical needs, according to county spokesman Eric Arpert.
Over the last five years, the county has had only one other terminally ill inmate, and he was also transferred to state prison for hospice care, Arpert said. State law requires the Department of Corrections to assume the cost of housing county prisoners placed in its care, according to state corrections spokesman Matthew Schumann.
While Teti remains in state custody, his criminal case continues through the courts.
The Prosecutor’s Office alleges that Teti went to deliver mail to his wife of 30 years, Joan, at the Evesham home where she lives with Corelli and his family, and attacked her. Authorities allege that Teti fled the scene, leaving his wife unconscious and not breathing when police arrived. Officers were able to revive her through CPR and the use of a portable defibrillator.
Court documents state that Teti called police to report a "dead body" on the front lawn of the home. When Barrington police arrested Teti later that day, he allegedly admitted that he put one hand on his wife's neck but that he never intended to kill her, according to court documents.
Corelli said his mother was hospitalized for two days after the attack with broken ribs, neck trauma and cuts to her hands from trying to fend off Teti. The assault was the first time Teti allegedly physically abused his mother, he said. Authorities confirm that Teti has no prior criminal record or police record involving domestic violence.
Lung cancer diagnosed
When Teti was arrested, the family already knew he had a mass in his lungs, but it was not diagnosed as cancer, Loggia said. After the arrest, Teti complained about chest pain in jail, and a PET scan and biopsy were performed in June and July, according to medical bills the county provided. The biopsy confirmed stage 3 lung cancer, Loggia said.
Her uncle was offered medical treatment, she said. The only treatment available was chemotherapy, but Teti had watched his sister — Loggia’s mother — go through the treatment and didn’t want to have his immune system further compromised while in jail.
During the months after his diagnosis, Teti and Loggia hoped prosecutors would let him plead guilty to third-degree assault so he would be eligible for time served. In December, though, prosecutors made their final offer — second-degree assault, and he’d have to complete more than four of his five-year prison sentence before he’d be eligible for parole, Loggia said.
He turned it down, and a trial was scheduled to start in February.
But when the new year arrived, Teti’s health began a steady decline, Loggia said. She visited the jail on Feb. 8 and learned he had been hospitalized at Virtua Memorial in Mount Holly with pneumonia in late January, a day after his last in-person court appearance, she said.
Doctors determined that the mass on his lung was blocking a bronchial tube that made breathing and swallowing difficult, Loggia said. The cancer was now at stage 4 and had spread to his pelvic bone.
Doctors trimmed his life expectancy from three to five months to no more than three, Loggia said.
|Judge Jeanne T. Covert|
In an email, Dr. David D. Wilson, with Penn Medicine Virtua Radiation Oncology, who treated Teti and wrote a medical report presented at a Feb. 22 bail hearing, confirmed that Teti has end-stage lung cancer with no chance of remission.
“He does not have the physical strength to walk around the block. He has an overall poor prognosis. … After completion of this course of radiation, I would recommend that he proceed to hospice and receive no more life-prolonging therapies," Wilson said, according to a copy of a Feb. 16 chart note, which was presented at the bail hearing seeking to lower Teti's bail or release him on his own recognizance.
Prosecutors are aware
At a Feb. 22 bail hearing, Public Defender Jennifer Weiler, who represents Teti, argued that prosecutors are well-aware of her client's terminal prognosis, according to a copy of a court transcript.
“The idea of putting that trial off to April is the fact that we all anticipate Mr. Teti will be passed by then. He will be dead,” Weiler said. “At that point, knowing this, that we’re all working on that assumption, the bail is to make sure he comes to court. Well, there is no assumption that he will ever come back to court. The assumption is he will pass.”
“Not because we anticipate him ever leaving the house, but to give some kind of comfort in any possible way that he is not leaving the house and, if he was, if he was to step over that threshold in any manner,” Weiler said. "… It would be known to everyone.”
Burlington County Assistant Prosecutor Rose Marie Mesa agreed that it was likely Teti would not go to trial, but it wasn’t “beyond the realm of possibility,” according to the hearing transcript. She also said Joan Teti has a “legitimate fear” of her husband, and the state alleges in its case that he has a history of following his wife and showing up unannounced at her home.
“He might not be able to walk around the block, but I certainly don’t know whether or not he would be able to rally long enough to go back to the home and finish what he started,” Mesa said.
The need to protect the victim and the seriousness of the charges and the ability to transfer Teti to a state prison that can meet his medical needs were among the reasons Superior Court Judge Robert Kelly gave for denying the bail application on Feb. 22.
“I don’t know what the true physical condition of this man is, other than I know he has a cancer. I don’t know whether that is such that he is unable to physically do anything,” Kelly said, according to a court transcript. “I’m not inclined to release under the circumstances, even though I know he has a serious illness, and there may be some time limitations here on his life as a result.”
An emergency appeal of the decision was denied on March 31.
After Teti finished his palliative radiation treatments, he was transferred on March 3 to South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton, Cumberland County, about an hour south of Evesham. The prison has a special palliative care unit. Schumann, the state corrections spokesman, described it as unusual, but not unheard of, for a state prison to accept a county inmate awaiting trial for security or medical purposes.
After the transfer, Loggia said she waited more than two weeks to secure permission to visit her uncle. She alleges that he remains in his cell 24 hours to prevent any interaction. Whenever he leaves his cell, the other inmates in the wing have to be locked in their cells, which Schumann confirmed.
Between visits, Loggia has been able to communicate with her uncle only by writing letters. Schumann confirmed that Teti’s phone privileges have been delayed because of “confusion” over the list of individuals he provided the prison (Loggia claims she is the only person on that call list).
Since the transfer, Loggia has seen her uncle only twice. At the most recent visit, she said his weight had dropped to about 100 pounds.
“He is in excruciating pain from the cancer,” Loggia said. “No one should have to die alone in a cell after having been in jail for over a year with never having the benefit of a trial.”
But Corelli is unmoved by his stepfather’s plight. His priority is keeping his mother safe. While she has recovered from her physical injuries, the emotional scars are fresh.
“She thinks about it every day,” Corelli said. “She is still scared he might show up at the front door.”