Ross may face death penalty in retrial

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Paul Aaron Ross, 41, could face the death penalty in his retrial for the murder of a Hollidaysburg woman in 2004, according to an opinion issued late Tuesday by Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva.

The judge ruled that during Ross’ first trial, the jury was unable to decide if Ross should be sentenced to life or death.

She found the jury was deadlocked on the question, and as a result, exposing Ross to the death penalty in his court-ordered retrial would not constitute “double jeopardy.”

Double jeopardy, which means being tried twice for the same legal issue, is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.

Kopriva wrote in an 11-page opinion that the key question centered on whether the jury in the first trial “acquitted” Ross, finding that mitigating factors of the case outweighed the aggravating factors.

She cited a 1984 Supreme Court case that barred the death penalty when the trial court found that aggravating circumstances in a case did not apply.

In that situation, the nation’s highest court said there was a legal entitlement to life because it amounted to “an acquittal on the merits.”

In the Ross case, the jury said it was deadlocked on the question of life or death.

Ross’ attorneys, Thomas M. Dickey and Thomas Hooper, argued last week the Blair County jury essentially acquitted Ross when it came to the death penalty and therefore a death verdict should be barred in the retrial, scheduled for this October.

Blair County District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio argued the jury had not acquitted Ross but was deadlocked, and therefore the death penalty could be part of the retrial.

Ross was arrested on June 26, 2004, for killing 26-year-old Tina Miller, who he met at a Hollidaysburg pub the night before.

According to the testimony, she and Ross were dropped off by friends at Canoe Creek State Park.

Ross lived nearby.

The next morning, Miller’s body was found partially submerged in the lake. Death was caused by a combination of strangulation and drowning, it was ruled.

Ross was convicted of first-degree murder, but, according to Consiglio last week, the jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of death.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court ordered a retrial because of Dickey’s argument that improper testimony was presented during trial and his contention that he did not have time to properly prepare the defense.

Dickey said Tuesday afternoon that “Obviously we (he and Hooper) disagree with (the judge’s ruling).”

He said he hadn’t had time to study the decision but said the defense attorneys will meet with Ross to discuss what to do next.

He said the defense has “options,” but he did not want to discuss them before meeting with his client.

Ross is being housed at the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy.

While Ross has not been present for the various status conferences and arguments so far, he is slated to participate via videoconference in a status conference later this month.

Kopriva spent several pages analyzing the death penalty argument as it applied to the Ross case.

The judge revealed that during the death penalty deliberations she received a note from the jury foreman stating, “Your honor, the jury is unable to reach a unanimous decision on life or death and it is unlikely we can.”

She recharged the jury, but within 15 minutes, the jury returned and stated, “Your Honor, the jury has been at an impasse and can’t reach a unanimous vote. The verdict is life.”

The defense seized on the last sentence, “The verdict is life,” and stated the jury had made a decision that barred a retrial on the death penalty.

“The jury’s question before the recharge indicating that they were unable to reach a unanimous decision and the juror’s conclusion on the verdict slip stating they were ‘at an impasse and can’t reach a unanimous vote’ establishes beyond any doubt that this was in fact a hung jury,” Kopriva said.

The handwritten statement “cannot be characterized as a acquittal on the merits,” she decided.

The record demonstrates, she said, “the mere imposition of a default life sentence.”

Hooper could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.