Woman’s request for appeal rights denied

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Senior Judge Hiram A. Carpenter has rejected a request by an Altoona woman serving life in prison for killing her boyfriend’s 4-year-old daughter to restore her appeal rights because, she

contended, her attorney “abandoned” her.

Rowlanda Lea Kenney, 47, housed at the State Correctional Institution at Muncy, has been behind bars since her 1998 conviction for the beating death of Ashley Decker, the daughter of Kenneth Decker III.

Carpenter rejected Kenney’s post-conviction petition as being “untimely,” ruling that she should have filed a petition challenging her conviction within a year of the rejection of her initial appeal by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

According to Carpenter, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied further appeal in the Kenney case on Sept. 27, 2000.

The “judgment of sentence” became final on Dec. 27, 2000, Carpenter ruled, which meant any further appeal should have been filed by Dec. 27, 2001.

Kenney did not file any further papers until Oct. 20, 2010.

While a defendant is supposed to file a new post-conviction petition within a year of the conclusion of the first appeal, there are exceptions, the judge said. The exceptions include if the defendant somehow was prevented from filing a timely appeal by government officials, if new facts emerged that could result in a defendant’s innocence or if a new constitutional right had been defined.

Kenney claimed she failed to follow through on further appeals because she was “abandoned” by her court-appointed attorney, Russell Montgomery, who never acted on her behalf.

Because she never heard from Montgomery, Kenney claimed she was “unaware” of how to proceed.

Carpenter held four hearings in the Kenney case, and Montgomery testified, claiming he was never informed he represented Kenney.

In a 2011 hearing, he said he did not know Kenney and does not recall ever representing her.

Carpenter concluded that, “Given attorney Montgomery’s lack of knowledge regarding the defendant or his appointment, clearly he had no role in advising the defendant one way or the other.”

The judge found that while Kenney claims she didn’t know how to proceed, she did know there were deadlines associated with appeals.

He indicated Kenney could have filed a post-conviction petition on her own, and he said “no failure by attorney Montgomery (presently Blair County’s public defender) could conceivably raise an issue which would justify the many-year delay which occurred with no PCRA petition whatsoever being filed until October, 2010.”

Kenney also contended that her trial attorneys never informed her that a conviction could result in a life sentence. Carpenter found no credibility in that contention.

Blair County First Assistant District Attorney Jackie Bernard tried the case along with former

District Attorney William Haberstroh. She said she believes Carpenter’s ruling against Kenney will stand, but she said Kenney has a right to appeal the ruling to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. The death of Ashley became a landmark case.

Prior to her death, the girl had visited a grandmother in Westmoreland County, and the grandmother was concerned about bruises she found on the girl and reported it to child welfare authorities.

Westmoreland County’s child welfare agency never reported the possible abuse to Blair County’s child welfare agency, which meant there never was a follow-up investigation. The child was subsequently beaten to death.

Bernard said the case led to the passage of a packet of new laws, championed by then state Sen. Robert C. Jubelirer, mandating agencies cooperate with each other and with the police.