State upholds Blair verdict

Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided a Blair County judge properly sentenced a child sexual offender to 75 to 150 years in prison, even though a year ago, the court said a life sentence for the man was improper.

Blair County Judge Elizabeth Doyle in May 2011 sentenced David A. Helsel of Altoona to life in prison under a three-strikes provision of the state’s Megan’s Law. A Blair County jury found Helsel guilty of 15 charges stemming from a June 2009 attack on two girls behind the Prospect Park baseball field.

Last year, the Superior Court said Helsel’s 2011 conviction only counted as his second strike and as such, he could not receive a life sentence.

Doyle then resentenced Helsel, 33, to 75 to 150 years as a two-strike offender, which the Superior Court said was proper on Monday.

The three-judge panel said the court “imposed individualized sentences and placed on the record its reasons for imposing the sentences.”

Because of the way she worded her second sentence, Doyle did not abuse her discretion as a judge, stated Superior Court Judges Kate Ford Elliott, Paula Fransisco Ott and Anne E. Lazarus.

Doyle slapped the heavy sentence on Helsel because he is “a sexually violent predator; his prior record for sexually violent crimes; the rapidity with which he reoffended after his release from incarceration; the impact of the crimes on the victims and the community; and the need to protect the community from Helsel.”

Helsel’s attorney, Douglas Keating, argued that the 75-year minimum sentence essentially meant the reimposition of the life sentence.

The Superior Court judges agreed that Keating’s claim that the new sentence was excessive raised “a substantial question,” but the court said it was within the limits of the law.

Helsel had been released from a 10-year state prison sentence only four months in June 2009 when he approached a group of teens talking in Oak Ridge Cemetery.

Under the pretext that two girls in the group, ages 12 and 15, had damaged tombstones in the cemetery, Helsel took the girls into custody, allegedly to take them to the cemetery owner’s house and turn them in.

The girls didn’t fight Helsel because they said they were frightened, stated the Superior Court.

As he and the girls reached a wooded area, Helsel pulled a knife and proceeded to sexually abuse the girls. He then focused his attention on the younger girl, allowing the 15-year-old to flee.

Help came immediately when the 15-year-old went to the nearby Bavarian Aid Society and called for help. It just happened that a meeting of the Fraternal Order of Police was in progress.

Police captured Helsel as he was attempting to sexually assault the 12-year-old.

When the case came to trial, former Assistant District Attorney Dan Kiss argued that Helsel was a three-strike offender because, in separate incidents, he had sexually assaulted two young girls a decade before.

Doyle imposed the life sentence, but the appeals court, while agreeing Helsel had committed two prior sexual offenses, he was sentenced during a single hearing and therefore did not have the opportunity to rehabilitate himself between the first and second offenses.

The court ruled the first two cases amounted to only one strike, and his 2009 offense was only his second.

Doyle last October gave Helsel separate and consecutive 25-50 year sentences for rape by forcible compulsion, which requires that the assault occurred under a threat, and rape of a child, for a sexual offense against a child under 13 years of age.

Keating disagreed with the consecutive 25 to 50 year sentences, contending they should have merged, but the three-judge panel disagreed.