Joan’s Law: the Murder of a Girl Scout Brownie

McGowan v. New Jersey State Parole Bd., 790 A.2d 974 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2002)

Joseph McGowan taught high school science and lived with his widowed mother and 87-year-old grandmother in Hillsdale, New Jersey.  On April 17, 1973, a seven-year-old Girl Scout Brownie named Joan D’Alessandro knocked on McGowan’s door to deliver two boxes of cookies. Her body was found five days later in the woods near Stony Point, New York.

McGowan pleaded guilty to murder on December 4, 1973, but Judge Fred Galda refused the plea: Joan had been sexually assaulted, the autopsy showed, and murder in the commission of a sex crime carried a much heavier minimum sentence. Galda demanded the prosecutor try McGowan for the more serious charge. Once a jury had been selected the following June, McGowan again pleaded guilty. In November, after the defense argued unsuccessfully that McGowan’s crime should be considered second- rather than first-degree murder, McGowan got life—with eligibility for parole in 13 years.

Joan’s mother, Rosemarie D’Alessandro, began a crusade to pass legislation mandating life in prison for the murder of children under fourteen during a sex crime. “Joan’s Law” was signed in New Jersey on April 3, 1997, and a federal version was enacted in 1998. The law does not apply to McGowan, as it took effect after his trial, but D’Alessandro organized demonstrations for every parole hearing. In 2009, the State Parole Board announced McGowan could not apply for parole again for 30 years, meaning he will be over 90 if and when he is released.

The motto for Joan’s Joy, a memorial foundation in Joan D’Alessandro’s name, reads: Remember Joan Today So Tomorrow’s Children Will Be Safe.