No justice? How a rabbi and a plea deal kept child-molesting NJ grandfather out of prison
She was in elementary school when her grandfather first molested her — physical and emotional abuse that was to last about a decade until, at age 16, Joyce Sitt was ready to seek justice.
Or she thought she was until she spoke with her family’s rabbi.
"He informed me that I could say whatever I wanted to but that if I did tell, I would lose all of my friends," Sitt recalled this summer in a Monmouth County courtroom.
"He let me know that my grandfather donates money and if I did this, all of the people that he helped would lose everything."
That talk with the rabbi was back in 2009. Last summer, after a failed marriage and a suicide attempt and years of pain stemming from a childhood of torment, Sitt came forward again.
This time, undeterred and with the help of investigators, she recorded her grandfather confessing to the abuse. He was finally arrested and charged with first-degree aggravated criminal sexual assault. The wheels of justice were turning.
Or she thought they were until she spoke with an assistant prosecutor.
The Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office proffered a plea deal that resulted in the man who robbed her childhood not spending a single day in prison.
Hal Sitt, 86, pleaded guilty to a single count of third-degree aggravated criminal sexual contact. Instead of prison, he will live out his life in one of his family’s Shore properties in Deal, one of the most exclusive seaside communities on the Jersey Shore. Sitt was sentenced in July to five years of probation and ordered to register as a sex offender. He must also pay his granddaughter $104,302.88 in restitution.
Prosecutors say the deal was reached with the victim’s cooperation and consent. But Joyce Sitt believes prosecutors pressured her into going along.
"To be honest, in a way, the assistant prosecutor presenting this plea as an option put me back to when I was a child with people covering it all up again," Joyce Sitt said last month in an interview with New Jersey 101.5.
"I can understand a plea deal but such a light one with such substantial evidence I do not," she said. "Dropping the charges that low feels like I was punished to go through a criminal trial for a year and a half and end up with him home and me suffering."
Joyce Sitt is not the only one who believes that the deal may have been too soft. The assistant prosecutor himself acknowledged in court that he had doubts about the plea.
Details of the sentencing are being reported publicly for the first time by New Jersey 101.5, raising questions about why the judge honored a deal that she described as “incredibly lenient.”
'I can understand a plea deal but such a light one with such substantial evidence I do not.'
Too old to go to prison?
Sexual abuse, particularly involving children, is one of the most difficult types of cases to prosecute. Victims living in fear and shame often wait years to report the abuse, and when they do come forward prosecutors are reluctant to pursue trials that could force survivors to relive their trauma or be subjected to harsh cross-examination.
In this case, investigators were hampered when Joyce Sitt’s rabbi (who she declined to identify to New Jersey 101.5) convinced her not to cooperate. Whether authorities consider the rabbi’s conduct an obstruction of justice or witness tampering is unclear because prosecutors would not comment on details of the investigation. Moreover, the statute of limitations (the time that prosecutors have to file charges) on those types of crimes is five years.
When authorities finally brought charges against Sitt’s grandfather, they also considered his advanced age.
During the sentencing hearing in July, Superior Court Judge Jill O'Malley called Joyce Sitt’s impact statement "one of the most powerful things" she had ever heard in a courtroom.
"She was brave not once, but twice. As a child she reported it and she was rejected by her own family and community. She was shamed for years," O'Malley said.
The judge turned to Hal Sitt, told him he was "a monster and a coward," then called the plea deal “incredibly lenient.”
“But I understand the reason for it,” O’Malley said. “The defendant stands before the court today 86 years old. There is an interest both in the state and for the victim in having this matter resolved.”
In a written response to questions from New Jersey 101.5, the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office acknowledged that Sitt's age was a factor that could have resulted in a long and arduous trial for the victim.
"The average life expectancy in the United States is 77. There was no guarantee available that the defendant would live to stand trial, if that was the chosen course of action – and even if he did, there is never a guarantee that the verdict would be favorable."
'I've never heard of anything like this in my entire career.'
Prosecutor has doubts about plea deal
At the July 22 sentencing, Assistant Prosecutor Noah Heck seemed to question the fairness of the deal that his own office had crafted. And he acknowledged the influence he may have had in pressuring Joyce Sitt to accept a deal with no prison time.
"To an extent, I feel like it was largely me that convinced her that prison shouldn't be appropriate," Heck said. "And to the extent that that's something that harmed her, or to the extent that's something that denies justice, I'll take responsibility for it."
Robert Bianchi, a former Morris County prosecutor now in private practice who New Jersey 101.5 asked to comment on this case, was surprised by the prosecutor’s comments in court.
While every prosecutor has second thoughts, Bianchi explained, they don't often express them in open court.
"I've never heard of anything like this in my entire career," Bianchi said, clarifying that it's good to have a thoughtful prosecutor and that Heck's reconsideration does not mean that anything wrong was done. He added that it depends on what exactly happened, but that "pressuring a victim into accepting something is not customary."
New Jersey 101.5 asked the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office to explain why it went forward with a plea deal that its own assistant prosecutor cast doubt on during court.
The spokesman described Heck’s statement in court as "spontaneous, unscripted, and demonstrative of the complexity of the case and the efforts undertaken to ensure that the defendant would face responsibility for his actions, while acknowledging the many difficult considerations that were at issue."
A spokesman for the office defended the deal but said prosecutors would “perform a thorough evaluation of what could have been done better – and incorporate what we learn toward our continual efforts to refine the fashion in which victims of crimes play a vital role in the prosecutorial process."
'Survivors have lost that sense of autonomy and have had their boundaries violated.'
Are prosecutors inadvertently pressuring victims?
The state Supreme Court in 2019 mandated sensitivity training for all judges handling sex crimes following a series of New Jersey 101.5 reports on judges who appeared to minimize or downplay the harm suffered by juvenile sex assault victims.
Three years later, advocates for survivors say there is still further to go.
Robert Baran, managing director at the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, told New Jersey 101.5 that it's important to make survivors of sexual violence feel heard. Even when prosecutors have the best of intentions, they should keep in mind that they are engaging with survivors who may mistrust authority figures.
"There's always room for us to do it better than we did the last time," Baran said.
He said prosecutors and similar figures should listen to what survivors feel is a fair outcome instead of telling them from the outset what they should do.
"Survivors have lost that sense of autonomy and have had their boundaries violated," Baran said. "And for them, for the process of trying to address that, for it to happen again is certainly detrimental to the survivor."
He noted that even with input, prosecutors have to make the challenging, final decision on how to proceed.
"There's just a way to handle it and engage with the survivor that can increase the likelihood that the survivor leaves understanding those decisions and feeling as though even if they didn't get the outcome that they had hoped for, at least they were valued and honored in the process," Baran explained.
While Baran said that there is training on how to engage with survivors, it is only a good first step.
Adopting certain philosophies, gaining a better appreciation of how trauma manifests, and building rapport with survivors could avoid pressuring victims in the future, according to Baran. He recommends consistently checking in with the survivor, getting feedback from them, and responding appropriately.
Survivor rebuilding her life
Part of the Sitt family portfolio is a multi-million dollar estate on Brighton Avenue. That house is where the victim said her grandfather molested her repeatedly beginning in 1997.
Whether he was picking her up from school or she was being taken to his house, nowhere was safe as long as her grandfather wanted her, she recalled.
Joyce Sitt said that the trauma prevented her from graduating high school and ruined her marriage.
In September 2020, she attempted suicide and her former husband got full custody of their three children.
"I don’t hold it against him because he wasn’t wrong," she said of her ex-husband. "I was not OK enough to take my kids. But I lost my children. Not because I was a bad person but because I was broken."
Now, she is trying to start again.
A GoFundMe, which includes her impact statement, is raising money so she can rebuild from "square one."