Kopriva: Bite mark clarity needed

Judge won’t allow Ross murder retrial to be scheduled until dispute cleared

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County Judge Jolene G. Kopriva is standing by her earlier decision to send arguments over the validity of bite mark evidence to the state Superior Court before allowing the county court to schedule a murder retrial for Paul Aaron Ross.

The 45-year-old Ross remains incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy in Frackville, Schuylkill County, based on a 2005 first-degree murder conviction in the 2004 death of 26-year-old Tina S. Miller of Hollidaysburg. But Ross is entitled to a new trial, the state Superior Court concluded in 2011, because of faults identified within the first trial.

In efforts to move the case to retrial, prosecutors and defense attorneys have been clashing over the use of bite mark evidence. In the first trial, the jury heard testimony about a bite mark on Miller’s body, one that would be “highly consistent” with Ross’ bite.

For the pending retrial, Blair County District Attorney Richard Consiglio and Assistant District Attorney Deanne Paul have advised the court that they want to offer testimony concerning the bite mark.

But defense attorneys Thomas Dickey and Thomas Hooper have challenged that option based on what they say are scientific advancements, which have invalidated conclusions linked to the use of bite marks as trial evidence. With help from the Innocence Project in New York, the defense has been asking Kopriva to prohibit or restrict the proposed testimony.

In her latest ruling, Kopriva denied a request from the district attorney’s office for reconsideration of her November ruling which certified the dispute for an interlocutory appeal, meaning it can be forwarded to the state Superior Court for pre-trial consideration.

Kopriva’s ruling, signed Friday, will keep Ross’ retrial on hold while the Superior Court decides if the issue is one it wants to address through an interlocutory appeal.

In a request asking Kopriva to reconsider her November ruling, Paul advised the judge that the matter falls short of meeting the standard for an interlocutory appeal as set in a 2005 Superior Court case.

But Kopriva said she would “respectfully disagree” with that conclusion and suggested that the matter is one for the appellate court to consider before time and effort is spent on a second trial.

Paul also contended that the pursuit of an interlocutory appeal is prejudicial to prosecutors who “now must defend an interlocutory appeal while simultaneously preserving testimony of approximately 50 witnesses who might be called to testify when this case is eventually tried before a jury.”

Kopriva acknowledged the delay the certification creates. But without an interlocutory appeal, the judge said she could foresee an “equal delay” if the case went to a second trial (without appellate guidance in the issue) that could result in a direct appeal and possibly lead to a third trial.

“In light of the past extensive delays, we certainly urge the appellate court to expedite this matter in any manner possible,” the judge advised.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.