by Douglas Ankney
Michael Ryan spent 29 years of his life dedicated to instructing the youth of Hammonton Public Schools. Instead of a retirement party and send off, he was suspended and hauled off the premises by school officials.
Easthampton Police Officer Michael Musser accused Ryan of committing a lewd sexual act in the parking lot of South Jersey Laundry and Dry Cleaning. Ryan denied ever visiting the laundromat. Musser did not charge Ryan on the day of the alleged offense. He testified at Ryan’s trial that the incident so “shocked” him that he didn’t write anything down at the time, such as a license plate number or physical description. Musser was forced to admit he did not remember the exact date. Yet he “looked the suspect in the eye” and remembered part of the car’s license plate number. Weeks later, when Musser saw Ryan at a ShopRite, he snapped a photo of Ryan’s license plate and accused him of the crime. A municipal court judge found that Musser’s identification of Ryan “is accurate and one which was to be believed.” Ryan was sentenced to one year of probation and charged $664 in fines and court costs.
After Ryan’s conviction, the school district fired him, and he lost his $112,000 salary. He struggled to find new employment because of his record of sexual misconduct, and he could no longer support his family.
While Ryan fought to clear his name, Easthampton determined Musser had lied to internal affairs’ investigators over a sick leave issue. The township concluded it could no longer trust Musser’s word and fired him, saying “[T]he stain cannot be removed.... No amount of retraining will cure the ill,” the hearing officer concluded. But due to the secrecy surrounding Musser’s firing, neither Ryan nor his attorney were aware of it. Because a cop’s past is so well hidden, it didn’t come to light until an investigation by USA Today Network New Jersey. Ryan’s attorney also uncovered records of Musser’s dishonesty attached to Musser’s lawsuit publicly challenging his firing in Superior Court. His attorney convinced a judge to overturn Ryan’s conviction based on newly discovered evidence in March 2018.
Reporting Not Timely
An entire year lapsed from the time of Musser’s dishonesty and the day the town fired him. During that time, he was out on patrol and filing charges. Police departments are required to turn over to prosecutor’s offices information regarding officer-credibility issues, including false reports. But that didn’t happen for Musser until the USA Today investigation, as indicated by Joel Bewley, a spokesman for the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office.
According to an email, Bewley said his office wasn’t notified of Musser’s dismissal until at least five months after a county judge upheld Musser’s firing for dishonesty. The prosecutor’s office is reviewing two cases involving people jailed on charges based upon Musser’s police work to “determine whether disclosure obligations exist.” The office also is planning to reinforce state policies on the reporting of these types of issues with police departments in their county.
Additionally, Musser charged Ryan while he was in a different county. Musser’s department didn’t bring the information about Musser to Atlantic County where Ryan was prosecuted. State policy doesn’t require it. But New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal recently told the Network his office is working on a statewide policy to address issues with a prosecutor’s obligation to turn over information that would be helpful to a defendant.
The New Jersey State Police Benevolent Association, the state’s largest police union, supports Grewal. President Pat Colligan said, “... we asked the AG’s office for a statewide policy because of the inequity in how the different prosecutors’ offices treat Brady. We are waiting for a statewide policy.”
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