N.J. lawmakers advance expansion of Joan's Law, inspired by murdered Hillsdale girl

Dustin Racioppi, The Record 

Lawmakers on Monday advanced the expansion Joan’s Law, a measure inspired by the murder four decades ago of a Hillsdale Girl Scout.

Named after Joan D’Alessandro, who was 7 years old when she was raped and murdered by neighbor Joseph McGowan, Joan’s Law requires a life sentence with no possibility of parole for those convicted of murdering someone under the age of 14 during a sexual crime. But Joan’s mother, Rosemarie D’Alessandro, “always thought it should include minors,” said Michael D’Alessandro, one of her sons, during testimony to the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Monday. The panel approved changing the law to raise the victim age to 18.

“This is probably the final step in a 20-year journey … for some of the most stringent laws that we can to try to prevent this from happening to somebody again,” said one of the bill’s prime sponsors, Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, R-River Vale.

Joan was selling Girl Scout cookies when she was kidnapped by McGowan, then a high school teacher who is now serving a life sentence at East Jersey State Prison in Rahway. Republican Assemblyman Robert Auth, one of the prime sponsors of the bill, was a junior firefighter in Old Tappan when Joan went missing. On Monday he recalled the fire chief calling an all-hands meeting to discuss the search for Joan, which lasted three days.

“I remember praying to myself, ‘Man, I hope I don’t find her,’ ” Auth said.

Joan’s body was found in Harriman State Park, in New York, on Easter in 1973. Led by Rosemarie D’Alessandro, the family has fought for laws against child sex offenders around the state and country. After New Jersey passed Joan’s Law, President Bill Clinton signed a federal version of it in 1998. New York adopted Joan’s Law in 2004.

The change to Joan’s Law may be voted on later this week by the full Assembly. A Senate version is pending.

The bill is also sponsored by Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood.