Attorney asks judge to bar death penalty
HOLLIDAYSBURG – A defense attorney is asking the judge in the Paul Aaron Ross murder case to bar the death penalty in his upcoming retrial, contending that when Ross was tried nearly a decade ago for the crime, the jury decided that a death sentence was not appropriate.
The prosecution disagrees, stating that the jury did not unanimously rule against the imposition of death but instead reached an “impasse” on the question, some in favor and some against.
That means that Ross, 41, who is being retried for the June 26, 2004, murder of Tina S. Miller, 26, can face death for a second time, argued Blair County District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio and Assistant District Attorney Deanne Paul in court Tuesday afternoon.
Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva, who is holding regular status conferences on the Ross case, said she will schedule a hearing on the death penalty question after giving the prosecution team time to study the defense petition, presented by attorney Thomas K. Hooper.
Kopriva’s goal is to begin jury selection on Oct. 7 with the Ross retrial to follow in the ensuing two weeks.
As the Tuesday status conference came to an end, Kopriva said, “We have some pretty serious work to do between now and October.”
Ross was found guilty in 2006 of first-degree murder in Miller’s death.
The prosecution, led by former District Attorney Dave Gorman during the penalty phase of that case, asked the jury to impose a death sentence. The defense, led by Altoona attorney Thomas M. Dickey, presented evidence that Ross had a traumatic childhood, a mitigating circumstance against imposing the death penalty.
The jury deliberated but eventually informed the judge it could not come to a unanimous verdict on the question of death.
Paul said the key in answering whether the death penalty can still be imposed rests on the term “unanimous.”
Had the jury returned a unanimous verdict against the death penalty, it would be barred from the retrial, the prosecution maintains.
The prosecutors reason that, since it was not unanimous, the question remains unresolved and is an appropriate question for the second trial. Hooper disagrees that the jury did not rule on the death question.
He cited a note the jury sent to the judge at the end of the death penalty deliberations.
It stated, “Your honor, the jury has been at an impasse and cannot reach a unanimous verdict. The verdict is life.”
The fact the jury cited a verdict, Hooper suggested, indicated the death penalty is barred.
Miller’s body was found at Canoe Creek State Park on the morning of June 26, 2004.
Police, tracing her whereabouts the night before, determined she was at a Hollidaysburg tavern and later at a private party. Ross was at both locations, and, according to those at the party, Ross and Miller were dropped off at the state park, near where Ross lived.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court has ordered a retrial for Ross because several of Ross’ former girlfriends were permitted to testify about their relationships with him and because Dickey argued he was not given time to properly prepare his defense.
Dickey remains the lead attorney in the Ross case. Hooper was appointed recently to handle the death penalty phase of the case, replacing Altoona attorney Steven P. Passarello, who bowed out of the case because of a conflict.
Hooper has been a defense attorney in several death penalty cases in Blair and surrounding counties.
The prosecution is seeking the death penalty, contending Miller was raped and tortured prior to her death.
Consiglio on Tuesday turned over a disc containing all the photographs of the crime scene taken by police during the investigation of Miller’s death.
Kopriva was told defense attorneys will be able to have total access to the evidence against Ross a week from Thursday.
The defense is also expected to present the judge with a list of expert witnesses it wants appointed to aid in the preparation of its case.