Murder charges against Hopatcong man dismissed. What happens next in the case?

A Hopatcong man facing decades in jail after he confessed to smothering his girlfriend’s mother to death two years ago walked away Thursday a free man.

Prosecutors sought to dismiss an indictment charging murder, felony murder and burglary against Nicholas Powers, 26, after yielding to doctors’ findings that the Hopatcong High School graduate’s confessions would not hold up at trial.

State Superior Court Judge Michael Gaus in the Sussex County neighborhood granted the request.

Powers, who is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum, is prone to suggestibility, which would impact the admissibility of his confessions in front of a jury, said Sahil Kabse, a Sussex County assistant prosecutor and special deputy attorney general .

Powers, however, still remains part of an active investigation into the death of Patricia Owen, 64, who died May 16, 2020 after police say she was smothered by a pillow in her bedroom. Powers’ indictment was dismissed without prejudice, meaning prosecutors can come back at a later date with more evidence and refile the charges. In New Jersey, some charges, including murder or manslaughter, have no statute of limitationsmeaning a criminal case can be filed at any time.

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Owen’s death is still being investigated as a homicide and experts are still confident in the cause of death, Kabse said. He declined to divulge any leads in the case, citing that he was “limited” in what he could offer.

Powers’ attorney Jeffrey Patti said he had “a lot to say” but instead bit his tongue, only reading a line from a report submitted by the prosecutor’s hired psychologist, who opined Owen’s death was “a crime that probably never happened.”

After the hearing, Powers, who was quiet as he sat in a pair of black pants and a gray button-up shirt, was embraced by his parents and sister.

“Nicholas and his family are very happy, very satisfied with that [the prosecutor] made this decision,” Patti said. “It was a bold decision.”

Patti argued in prior hearings Owen’s death was initially believed to be “undetermined,” with a toxicology report finding Owen allegedly had illicit drugs in her system. She also had several health-related issues. The medical examiner changed the manner of death after police arrested Powers, who had allegedly made confessions to his girlfriend, friends, mother and sister before he detailed Owen’s death to law enforcement, Patti said. Patti also pointed out holes in the case that included an apparent lack of DNA and fingerprint evidence.

Prosecutors hinted at the possibility that the indictment could be dismissed at a hearing in Julybut instead moved towards the “ethical” route of releasing Powers with conditions from Morris County Jail, where he had served over two years.

Powers initially told police he found Owen dead the morning of May 17, 2020 inside her Francis Avenue home, but did not know how she died. Powers told police at the time his girlfriend and her mother had fought the previous evening, which led the couple to stay with friends.

Powers said he returned to Owen’s house around 6 pm on May 17 to obtain belongings for his girlfriend and used a key to open Owen’s room, where he found her asleep, according to police records. He allegedly told police he put on a pair of gloves, grabbed a pillow and smothered Owen’s face. When she struggled, he used his knee as leverage to ensure she couldn’t breathe, and double-checked her pulse before he went back to his friend’s house, bringing the pillow with him, police said.

Powers, who had cycled through three attorneys since the start of his case, lost three prior bids at release from jail and was days away from taking a plea offer, with a different attorney, last year.

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Individuals with autism spectrum disorder may be more eager to please or to avoid conflict and confrontation than controls, and may be more prone to respond compliantly to requests and demands, according to a research article by The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology.

“In a police interview a tendency to respond in this way may, in some circumstances, disadvantage a suspect,” the report states. “In the worst case, it could lead to a statement that is erroneous and self-incriminating.”

The research also found that those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder are “more easily led, manipulated or coerced into criminal activity by peers.”

Kabse said the doctors found Powers as someone with the potential to “just run with” an idea that is put into his head or as someone easily convinced to do or say things, even if the statements are untrue. Powers told doctors there were people around him pressuring him to commit the crime or that there was a notion put in his head that he should confess to killing Owen, even if he didn’t do it. It was also believed that Powers was threatened by the same people, but Kabse said there was no immediate evidence to prove that.

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 the New Jersey Herald: Hopatcong NJ: Murder charge dismissed as investigation continues

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