Megan only lived to be 7, but her death gave rise to a national law to protect other children.
In the spring of 1997, the eyes of the world were focused on Mercer County's old courthouse, where a sniveling waste of a man was on trial for the child slaying in Hamilton Township that gave birth to Megan's Law.

There was no question about the guilt of Jesse Timmendequas, who confessed six times to raping and killing 7-year-old Megan Kanka. Nor was there much thought the jury would spare the killer a death sentence.

All the television networks, Court TV, 100 American newspaper reporters and newsmen from as far away as Japan and England were covering the trial because not since the Lindbergh baby killing in 1932 had American lawmakers reacted so swiftly to public outrage about a crime.

Megan's Law, which requires notification of the neighborhood when a sex offender moves in, was put on the books in New Jersey just 94 days after the July 29, 1994, killing of the little girl in a house 150 feet from her Mercerville home.

In May of 1996, less than two years after the crime and a year before the trial, President Clinton signed federal legislation requiring states to set up similar protections against pedophiles and other sex offenders freed from prison.

As the world watched the trial, the strategy of the defense lawyers became clear: Raise objections that could become grounds for appeal and press for a mistrial, which would force Mercer to spend another $1 million trying the case again.

Judge Andrew Smithson wouldn't declare a mistrial after the defense objected to Maureen Kanka, the victim's mother, crying on the stand as she testified about the murder of Megan.

Nor was the case tossed, as the defense wanted, when two Hamilton detectives broke into tears while testifying about how the child was lured off the sidewalk outside her Barbara Lee Drive home and into Timmendequas’ house, where she was molested and slain.

On May 28, during her closing argument, Timmendequas lawyer Barbara Lependorf suggested Megan Kanka brought on her own murder by approaching the neighbor as he cleaned a boat outside his house and asking him about his new black Labrador puppy.

"Jesse didn't suggest it," Lependorf told the jury. "He was minding his own business. He was washing the boat and she comes along and asks him. Jesse walked into the house first. She followed him. He went up to the stairs. She followed him. They went into Jesse’s bedroom and the question is, what happened?"

Charles Easton, a Kanka neighbor, said Lependorf's insinuation was so maddening he might have  rushed to the defense to personally attack Timmendequas, which would have created a mistrial.

But Megan's father, stocky electrical contractor Richard Kanka, kept his cool that day, sealing the fate of the sniveling suspect, who already had two child-molestation convictions on his record.

Twenty-two days later, the jury sentenced Timmendequas to death, which sent a harsh message to pedophiles everywhere and helped burn the name Megan Kanka into the American consciousness.

These scant few years after Megan's murder, her name is in dictionaries and encyclopedias, sometimes with the picture of how most Americans conjure her up now -- those rosy cheeks, the happy smile.

The youngest of three Kanka children, she was ready to enter the second grade at the Sayen
Elementary School. She loved the color pink and chocolate chip ice cream and milk and cookies.

Her father said Megan was as mightily strong-willed as her mother. Megan's big sister, 11-year-old
Jessica, said she was always smiling and enjoyed bugging her and borrowing her clothes.

Megan was brought home to Barbara Lee Drive as an infant not long before convicted molester
Joseph Cifelli was released from prison in 1987 and returned to his mother's house across the street from the Kankas.

Megan was brought home to Barbara Lee Drive as an infant not long before convicted molester
Joseph Cifelli was released from prison in 1987 and returned to his mother's house across the street from the Kankas.

In 1992, after Timmendequas finished a 10-year prison stint, Cifelli invited him to move in with him and Brian Jenin, another friend from their days together as inmates at Jersey's prison for sex offenders. Cifelli's mother, who owned and lived in the house, by this time was an Alzheimer's victim.

Some neighbors would tell reporters after the murder that they had heard about the sex offenders living on the street. One said she trimmed a branch on a tree in the front yard so she could keep an eye on her granddaughter when she played near the Cifelli house.

Richard Kanka, 42, would admit hearing vague stories about Cifelli before Megan was born and said: "We did know of the men, but we did not know about their pasts."

"If I had known that there was a pedophile living on our street, my daughter would be alive today," said Maureen Kanka, 34, who named and started pressing for "Megan's Law” two days after the murder.

People shouldn't have to rely on rumor and gossip to find out they need to protect their kids from neighborhood child molesters, the Kankas said: The authorities should alert them when some paroled or maxed-out sex offender moves in.

As it was after another "crime of the century," the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder 62 years before, people in Jersey and across America demanded legislation to prevent something like this from happening again.

With Mercerville and the rest of Greater Trenton festooned with pink ribbons in honor of Megan, Gov. Christie Whitman met with the Kankas several times and pledged her support for Megan's Law.

Jersey lawmakers started lining up to co-sponsor legislation, proposed by Sen. Peter Inverso of Hamilton, to require freed sex offenders to register with local authorities and for neighborhoods to be told about them.

In less than 90 days, the law had been reviewed in committee and passed overwhelmingly in both Jersey's legislative houses. Whitman signed it into law on Oct. 31,1994, 94 days after the murder.

It was all reminiscent of the speedy action in the United States Congress to make kidnapping a federal crime punishable by death after the Lindbergh case, which occurred at the home of the famed American aviator just up the road from Trenton in East Amwell.

By the time Clinton signed the federal version of Megan's Law in May 1996, Maureen Kanka was a nationally recognized figure who was being credited with mounting one of the most effective lobbying efforts in U.S. legislative history.

The Kankas would spend the next ear preparing for the trial, which Mercer Prosecutor Maryann Bielamowicz and her top assistant, Kathryn Flicker, warned was going to be graphic and heart-wrenching.

Emotional outbursts, even crying in court, could hurt the prosecution, Bielamowicz and Flicker cautioned. In the months before the trial, for instance, Jersey's top court had overturned an Atlantic County murder conviction because the jury saw too much emotion in the courtroom.

In the Atlantic County case, the defendant's defense for laying in wait to attack and fatally stab the victim was that the slain man was a bully who had been roughing him up for years.

The Atlantic County prosecutor, saying the victim wasn't getting a chance to rebut the "bully" allegations, had the bloody and slashed clothes he died in draped over an empty chair in the courtroom. Through the trial, the jury saw the clothes and heard the crying of the victim's mother as she sat in the audience.

The Kankas got a clue about how rough the trial was going to be during a preliminary hearing, at which Assistant Public Defender Mark Cantazaro suggested the name of the victim be withheld from the jury because knowing this was the infamous case that spawned Megan’s Law would taint their thinking.

The judge rejected that, and the angry public reaction to the idea prompted supervisors in the public
defender's office to quietly drop Cantazaro from the case.

In answer to defense concerns about all the newspaper coverage of the crime and the drive for passage of Megan's Law, Smithson ordered jurors chosen from a jury pool in Hunterdon County.

Timmendequas' lawyers also said he would plead guilty to first-degree murder and take life in prison right away if prosecutors would forget seeking the death penalty.

Bielamowicz said no, despite the huge cost of pressing a capital case. By the start of the trial, for
instance, Mercer Sheriff Sam Plumeri was estimating an overtime bill of $400,000 for all the
deputies protecting Timmendequas from assassins and keeping an eye on the unknown faces in the courthouse.

In the first days of May 1997, the world was ready for the trial of the skinny, scruffy 36-year-old street sweeper for Princeton Township whose crime had sparked Megan's Law.

So intense was the television coverage that authorities banned parking along the entire block of South Broad Street outside the courthouse to provide room for TV production vans and trailers.

There wasn't enough room for all the reporters and spectators in Smithson's courtroom, so a closed-circuit television system was rigged up to let the others see what was happening on monitors in another room.

On May 5, Maureen Kanka took the stand to testify about the nightmare moment she learned Megan had been killed.

She sobbed as she told of the frantic 24 hours of searching for the missing little girl and of Hamilton detectives arriving to tell her Megan was dead on Saturday night, July 30, 1994.

She sobbed as she told of the frantic 24 hours of searching for the missing little girl and of Hamilton detectives arriving to tell her Megan was dead on Saturday night, July 30,1994.

“All I could hear was the crying and wailing from around the house. I just sat there. I couldn't cry. I couldn't react. I was just numb. My little girl was dead," Kanka told the jury.

The next day, defenseman Roy Greenman called on the judge to declare a mistrial, arguing that Maureen Kanka's emotional testimony unduly influenced the thinking of the jurors. Smithson said no, and that Kanka had maintained her composure well under the circumstances.

Indeed, in the days to come the jury wouId see two more displays of emotion that illustrated just how horrible the crime had been. They came from a pair of Hamilton detectives not at all inclined to break down in tears, Martin Ingebrandt and Robert O'Dwyer.

The lead investigators on the case, the detectives had to tell the jury how they linked Timmendequas to the slaying and exactly how and why Megan had been killed.

According to their testimony, the crime occurred on the Friday evening of July 29, 1994, at about 6:30, when neighbors saw Megan riding her bike across the street from where Timmendequas was cleaning a 24 foot Bayliner boat, the Sunsation, he and his molester buddies had brought home earlier in the day.

The detectives said Megan approached "Jesse," the only name anyone in the neighborhood knew him by, and asked about the new black puppy. Timmendequas told her it was in the house and that she could see it.

Seconds later the child was in Timmendequas' upstairs bedroom. There, according to the confession O'Dwyer read into the court record, the suspect admitted he ”put my hands on her, on her bottom, and she screamed.

"I grabbed her by the back of her pants to pull her back into the room and her pants ripped. I
grabbed a belt off the door and threw the belt around her. It ended up around her neck. I
twisted my arms and she just fell to the floor. She was just lying on the floor and she was not moving. Blood was coming put of her mouth," O'Dwyer quoted Timmendequas as admitting.

Asked why, Timmendequas reportedly told the detectives: "I just didn't want her to get loose. I was afraid she would tell her mother I put my hand on her butt and tried to kiss her ... I was afraid I would get in trouble and go to jail."

As he read this portion of the confession, O'Dwyer broke into heavier tears than the jury had seen the day before when Ingebrandt choked up while testifying. The defense jumped up to call for a sidebar with the judge.

Smithson told O'Dwyer he was excused for the day, but to come back the next day to finish testifying -- without any emotion.

In the days that followed, O'Dwyer and a state police detective would keep their cool as they told the jury the rest of the sordid and saddening details. The jury heard about Megan biting Timmendequas' hand as he tried to stifle her scream -- and the suspect saying it hurt and asking for a Band-Aid while being questioned the next day.

Two days after they heard Lependorf's closing suggestion that Megan had somehow brought on her own murder, the jury returned with the guilty verdict following only four hours of deliberation.

When polled individually to see if each agreed with the guilty verdict, all 12 said "yes," some shouting it emphatically as they stared down at Timmendequas.

Then it became time for the defense to beg for the life of Timmendequas, which exposed the jury and the world to some more sickening testimony. Arguing there were "mitigating circumstances," the Timmendequas lawyers said he should be spared.

He was, they said, rejected by his mother because he looked so much like his father -- and sexually abused by one stepfather who also molested his siblings. Classified as mentally retarded and emotionally disturbed in school, he never received any professional help for his problems, the lawyers said..

Timmendequas also was permitted to ask the jury to spare him. In a soft, squeaky voice, the killer took up only 28 seconds appealing for his own life:

"OK. I am sorry for what I've done to Megan. I pray for her and her family every day. I have to live with this and what I've done for the rest of my life. I ask you to let me live, so I, some day, I can understand and have an understanding why something like this could happen."

On June 20, following 10 hours of deliberations over two days, the jury of six men and six women returned with the execution order.

The Kankas smiled slightly on hearing the verdict and seeing Timmendequas taken away to Death Row at the state prison in Trenton.

"It's a very bittersweet ending,” Maureen Kanka said into a bank of microphones outside the courthouse a few minutes later.

"It doesn't bring back our little girl because nothing ever will. In our eyes, it's not what some would call closure. We have to live with it every day.

"Today's death verdict will ensure that he will never, ever, ever again get out to harm another child again. Megan's life was worth everything.”
1997: Justice for Megan
By PAUL MICKLE / The Trentonian
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