New trial ordered for leader of grave-robbing cult

Conviction called unfair after expert opined on guilt

Star-Ledger, New Jersey/April 26, 2007
By William Kleinknecht

A state appellate court yesterday ordered a new trial for a leader of a grave-robbing religious cult who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for directing a follower to steal human remains from two Newark cemeteries.

Miriam Miraballes, an alleged high priestess in the Palo Mayombe sect, was unfairly convicted in a 2004 trial after an expert on cults was improperly allowed to give his opinion on her guilt, according to a ruling by the Superior Court Appellate Division.

Miraballes' appellate attorney, William Welaj, also argued that 15 years was an excessive sentence for the 61-year-old Cuban immigrant, who is being held in the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Clinton. But the court said it did not have to rule on that question because it was ordering a new trial.

Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the Essex County Prosecutor's Office, said his office believes the Mi raballes trial was handled properly and that it would seek to have the matter reviewed by the state Supreme Court.

Miraballes' trial in April and May of 2004 came after a highly publicized series of thefts from above-ground mausoleums at Holy Sepulchre and Mt. Pleasant cemeteries.

In one theft, the bones of Richard Jenkinson, a prominent industrialist and Newark mayoral candi date in the early 1990s, were dragged from his crypt at Mt. Pleasant.

Newark police and the FBI linked the grave robbing to practi tioners of Palo Mayombe, a religion with African roots that experts say is practiced by a small number of Cuban immigrants. Palo worship ers at times use human skulls and other remains in their ceremonies.

Miraballes -- also known as Mi riam Mirabal -- was accused of directing one of her followers, Ramon Gonzalez, who testified at her trial, to carry out crypt thefts. She was found guilty on May 3, 2004 of seven counts of burglary, theft and conspiracy to commit theft. On June 25, 2004, Superior Court Judge Michael Ravin sentenced her to 15 years in prison.

During her trial, Marco Qui nones, who investigates religious cults for the New York Police Department, took the stand as an ex pert witness. According to the ap pellate decision, Ravin improperly allowed Dean Maglione, then an assistant Essex County prosecutor, to ask Quinones what role he be lieved Miraballes played in the cemetery thefts, instead of limiting his expert testimony to the general nature of Palo worship.

The ruling said Maglione "elicited an opinion that the '61-year-old Cuban woman' was responsible for the cemetery thefts" and that his questions "called on the expert to opine on the credibil ity of the state's case."

The 3-0 ruling, written by Judge Harvey Weissbard, found that the "question and answer were erro neously admitted" by the judge, despite the failure of Miraballes' trial attorney, Francisco Guzman, to vigorously object.

In addition, the appellate panel found that Maglione should not have been allowed to ask Quinones whether, in his expert opinion, a Palo priestess would be truthful in court testimony. Quinones responded that a Palo priestess would lie rather than reveal the cult's secrets.

The appellate court noted that the defense did not object to that question.

"It put defendant in a position," the opinion said, "where before she ever testified -- which she did not -- she was labeled as untruthful. That is unacceptable."

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