DEPTFORD — A former township cop serving a 30-year-minimum prison sentence has a new shot at freedom after an appellate decision threw out his convictions and ordered a new trial.

James Stuart, now 33, was found guilty in the Jan. 5, 2013, death of his friend, David Compton, who Stuart shot in the face in his living room.

Stuart maintained that the shooting was an accident — the two friends were watching a movie at 3 a.m. after a long night of drinking and Stuart said he and his friend had been "dry firing" what he believed to be unloaded handguns.

Prosecutors, who suggested that the friends could have been in an altercation, argued that Stuart tried to cover up his role in the shooting and lied about what happened.

A Gloucester County jury in 2015 found Stuart not guilty of the unlawful firearm possession and purposeful murder charges, but convicted him of knowing murder and aggravated manslaughter.

But a three-judge appellate panel on Thursday said the convictions have to be thrown out because a defendant cannot be found guilty of both knowing murder and aggravated manslaughter of the same victim.

The 43-page decision says the offenses are “irreconcilable,” requiring “two mutually exclusive states of mind.”

To be guilty of knowing murder, prosecutors have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant knowingly caused a death by doing something that he was "practically certain" would kill.

David Compton (McGuinness Funeral Home)
David Compton (McGuinness Funeral Home)

Aggravated manslaughter, on the other hand, requires proving that the defendant acted recklessly and consciously disregarded substantial and unjustifiable risk in circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life.

Prosecutors argued against the appeal by saying someone can be guilty of both. But the appellate decision says juries in such cases are supposed to be instructed to consider manslaughter only after finding the defendant not guilty of murder.

The appellate decision also says that the trial judge should have instructed the jury to consider the "mistake of fact" defense because Stuart argued that he did not know that the gun had a round in it.

A spokesman for Gloucester County Prosecutor Sean Dalton said Thursday that the office is considering whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

"Barring that, the GCPO will prepare to prosecute this case again," the office said in a written statement.

Compton was in Stuart's home after both left a bar at 2 a.m. Stuart said he had four beers and a shot during four hours at the bar and then had another two beers and a large scotch at home. His blood-alcohol content four hours after the shooting was 0.144. The legal limit for driving is 0.08.

Both were watching "Dredd" when Compton asked to hold Stuart's service weapon, a Glock .22 that Stuart said he had unloaded by removing the magazine and ejecting a round in the chamber and then dry firing it a few times.

Stuart said during the movie he went to his room to get a Glock .27, which he also unloaded, and a collector's revolver that had no bullets so that his friend, who was inexperienced with guns, could compare the trigger pulls.

Stuart said he and his friend dry fired at "bad guys" on the TV screen. At one point, Stuart fell asleep, he said, and was awakened by a noise in the movie and his friend laughing at him.

Stuart said he reached for the Glock .27, which still did not have the magazine.

The appellate decision's summary of his testimony:

“He said he intended to dry fire at the ‘bad guys’ in the move, and as he began to pull the trigger, Compton said something that caused him to instinctively turn toward Compton. Defendant said as he did so, he was in the process of completing his trigger pull. He heard a loud boom and ‘didn’t know what happened.’"

Stuart said he hadn't realized at first that he had shot his friend. He said he looked for damage on his TV. Then, he said, he noticed that his friend's cheek was bleeding.

He then called county dispatch instead of 911 because, he said, he thought it would be faster.

Instead of saying that he had shot his friend, Stuart told the dispatcher that "a man [...] was, ah, playing with a weapon, it was loaded and, ah, he, there was a shot fired.”

He testified that he secured all of his weapons and placed the magazine back in the Glock .27 in order to make it easier to carry all three handguns into his bedroom.

Compton died six days later.

Prosecutors at trial poked holes in Stuart's testimony.

They pointed out that even though one of his hands was bloodied, there was no blood anywhere in the bedroom or on the Glock that he said he had reloaded after the shooting.

Compton's bullet wound had a downward trajectory, indicating that Stuart had been standing when he fired, not sitting.

And the apartment was messy, suggesting that there could have been a struggle. Stuart, a bachelor, testified that he was not a good housekeeper.

Stuart cannot be retried on the purposeful murder or weapon charges because a jury already found him not guilty.

Stuart, who remains at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, was represented in the appeal by Deputy Pubic Defender Stefan Van Jura.

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