To be subject to a first degree conviction, a robber who is unarmed but threatens to use a gun or knife must also make a physical gesture to give the impression of possessing the weapon.
But the court ruled Monday that such a gesture is not required in bomb-threat cases in order for a victim to have a reasonable belief that there is a deadly weapon involved, the court said. The words alone are enough for a first-degree conviction.
"Today, the sad reality is that persons have armed themselves with bombs concealed under their clothes, in shoes, and in headgear," the court said. "The threat to use such a weapon is likely to induce terror greater than the threat of a gun or knife."
The court reinstated first-degree robbery convictions for Kelvin Williams, who was found guilty of robbing a Camden County bank, and Christopher Dekowski, who was convicted in a separate similar case in Union County.
Williams was charged in an October 2008 robbery at the Sun National Bank in Somerdale. Head teller Cheryl Duncan said Williams told her "that he had a bomb and to give him $7 million."
Duncan did not see a bomb, but testified that Williams was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and his hands and lower body were not visible. She said she thought he could be "crazy enough" to blow himself up, so she handed over $552 from her teller's draw.
Williams was arrested a short time later. He was found guilty of first-degree robbery and sentenced to 14 years in prison. Dekowski was convicted of robbing a Roselle bank and sentenced to 13 years.
Neither defendant was armed with a bombs and defense lawyers appealed, contending there was insufficient evidence for a first-degree charge, which carries more prison time.
The appeals court agreed and overturned both convictions because neither defendant made a physical gesture indicating he was carrying a bomb.
The Supreme Court justices disagreed with the lower court and cited numerous recent high profile cases involving explosives, including the bombings at the Boston Marathon last year.
"A victim threatened with the immediate detonation of a bomb is not likely to ask for proof of its existence," the high court wrote.
Jason Magid, an assistant Camden County prosecutor who handled the Williams case before the appellate and supreme courts, praised the ruling as recognition that "the law must adapt to societal changes especially with respect to something as serious as threats of deadly force to effectuate the commission of a crime."
Michael B. Jones, an assistant public defender who represented Williams, did not return a telephone message left at his office.
Both cases were sent to the Appellate Division to decide other issues unrelated to the rulings.