Nicole Gaudiano, Staff Writer February 27, 2001, Tuesday Copyright 2001 North Jersey Media Group Inc. The Record (Bergen County, NJ) February 27, 2001, Tuesday; All Editions
(HACKENSACK, N.J.) -- Holding out for a jury trial proved to be the right call for AlvaMcLean.
After spending nearly five years in jail and rejecting a plea agreement in 1999, McLean was acquitted Monday of all charges in connection with the murder of an off-duty Teaneck police officer during an April 1996 holdup at Sears in Hackensack.
The 26-year-old former stock clerk beamed at his mother as the "notguilty" verdicts were read in Superior Court in Hackensack, clearing him on charges of murder, felony murder, robbery, conspiracy, and weapons possession.
"Thank God that the jury found me not guilty after being locked up for five years for something I did not do," McLean said later. "I'm truly sorry that it 1 happened to him. But I was not involved in that."
Prosecutors alleged that McLean supplied crucial inside information and drove the getaway car in the robbery and slaying of Robert L. Fisher Jr. at the Sears department store on Main Street, where Fisher, 27, was moonlighting as a security guard.
Two other men, Kevin Lee and Kevin Richards, were convicted of murder in the killing and are serving life sentences. McLean could have faced the same sentence had he been convicted.
Jurors leaving the courthouse after the verdict all refused comment.
McLean's lawyer, Joseph A. Portelli of Paterson, said: "There clearly wasn't enough evidence to link him to having the same purpose and intent as the other defendants."
Fisher's parents had attended the trial but couldn't be there for the verdict. They were notified of the jury's findings, Assistant Bergen County Prosecutor Patricia Baglivi said.
Baglivi, who prosecuted the case, had no comment.
Defense attorneys admitted that McLean, who worked at Sears as apart-time stock clerk, had told his friends Lee and Richards about the security guard's movements but emphasized that he did not know they were planning a robbery. At the time of his arrest, McLean also worked part time in the mailroom of The Record.
"He was duped," Portelli said.
Lee and Richards were waiting when Fisher emerged from the store carrying a toolbox containing about $ 6,000 in receipts. As Lee and Fisher struggled over the toolbox, Richards fired one shot into Fisher's chest, killing him almost instantly.
Baglivi argued that McLean was in on the plan for months. After the killing, he drove the two men back to Paterson, where they split the loot, she told jurors.
However, the state's case relied almost entirely on circumstantial evidence, since no witnesses placed McLean at the Sears and no one reported hearing him plotting the crime. Witnesses only testified to bits of conversations between Lee and Richards in which they mentioned McLean.
During the trial, Portelli tried to undermine the credibility of several witnesses, many with criminal records. This affected the outcome of the case, he said Monday.
"The state's witnesses were hardly credible," Portelli said.
One of the biggest blows to prosecutors came from someone who didn't serve as a witness, Kevin Richards, who took the stand but refused to testify despite promises of immunity from prosecutors.
Richards had implicated McLean when he confessed to detectives a week after the slaying, and prosecutors had hoped his testimony would bolster their case. But they weren't allowed to present his statement to jurors without his testimony to corroborate it.
McLean was arrested a week after the killing and has spent the entire time since then behind bars.
Prosecutors tried him and Lee together in 1998, but jurors returned a split verdict, convicting Lee but remaining deadlocked on McLean.
After 10 days of deliberation, Superior Court Judge Timothy Sullivan declared a mistrial.
McLean went to court in May 1999, prepared to plead guilty to the lesser charge of aggravated manslaughter. But he turned down the deal, which called for a 15-year sentence with the stipulation that he spend at least five years in prison, telling his attorney he did not want to serve that much time.
"He obviously made the right choice," said Portelli's co-counsel, Matthew Priore.
Facing a possible lifetime prison term if convicted of the murder charges, McLean begged his mother to find new attorneys. A nurse's aide, Hazeline McLean said she worked two jobs to save money for the lawyers.
"I couldn't look at the money and let his life go down like that," she said.
Alva McLean said he had just enrolled at Bergen Community College before his arrest. He said he wants to eventually study law, to fight a system he considers corrupt.
On Monday night, his thoughts were of being at home, maybe finding some friends to take him out, possibly to dinner at Red Lobster.
"I just want to stay home with my mom for the rest of the night and just hug her and kiss her," he said.
His mother, meanwhile, said she was considering where he should live. She doesn't feel comfortable with him staying locally, she said.
If she could speak to the jurors, she said, "I would go there and say thanks for saving my son's life."