Federal judge recuses himself from lawsuit

U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson in Johnstown has recused himself from presiding over a civil lawsuit brought by a Johnstown man who recently was released after his life sentence for the murder of his wife was vacated.

On Monday, Gibson asked that the case be reassigned because he learned that one of the defendants in the lawsuit was hired this month as a court security officer for the federal building in Johnstown where Gibson works.

The judge stated he was recusing himself from the case to avoid an “appearance of conflict.”

The case has been reassigned to U.S. District Judge David S. Cercone.

Cercone is a former assistant district attorney and judge in Allegheny County. He was appointed to the federal bench in 2002 by President George W. Bush and has served in the Pittsburgh division of U.S. District Court for Western Pennsylvania for the past 16 years.

He assumed senior judge status last November.

The transfer of the case comes at a critical juncture in the lawsuit brought this year by Kevin Siehl, 62, of Johnstown, who is contending that police and prosecutors investigating the July 1991 murder of his wife, Christine, focused entirely on him as the killer and, “under pressure to solve a sensational crime,” brought false charges against him.

He claims evidence and statements were fabricated; there was failure to pursue leads that would show his innocence; and prosecutors interfered with his defense and violated court orders to obtain his conviction.

His first-degree murder conviction and life sentence were vacated in 2016, after 25 years of post-conviction hearings.

The lawsuit was brought against two former Cambria County assistant district attorneys, two state police crime scene investigators and two Johnston police detectives.

One of the city detectives, Lawrence Wagner, is now working as a court security officer at the Johnstown federal building.

In the past few weeks, attorneys representing the assistant district attorneys, the state police and the Johnstown detectives have filed lengthy legal briefs asking the Siehl lawsuit be dismissed.

Siehl’s attorney has answered each of three briefs, and the judge in the case must now decide if the lawsuit can move forward.