HOLLIDAYSBURG - In a contentious hearing Thursday, death-row inmate Andre Staton agreed to be represented by a court-appointed attorney as he pursues a new trial.
Staton, whose execution has been temporarily stayed, shook his head in disgust when Blair County Judge Elizabeth Doyle said she wanted him to undergo a competency evaluation.
He argued that he didn't need a competency evaluation because the judge had already appointed attorney Tim Burns to handle this stage of his appeal.
Staton was sentenced to death for the first-degree murder of former girlfriend Beverly Yohn.
Burns, however, said he wanted Staton to undergo a competency review.
Burns said that he will work with Staton to prepare an appropriate post-conviction petition outlining reasons why he should receive a new trial.
But first, Burns argued, he wanted to make sure that Staton is competent to assist him in the case.
Staton, who pointed out to the judge that he already has prepared a post-conviction petition of several hundred pages, said he is competent, and he has twice undergone competency reviews.
Doyle said it has been six years since his last review and she thought it was time for another.
The ironic part of the hearing was that Blair County District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio and Staton appeared to be of the same mind on the competency issue.
Consiglio said a competency review was not needed and that it is obvious that the questions posed by such a review show Staton to be competent.
Staton knows he has been convicted of first-degree murder, faces the death penalty, understands the procedure, and agreed to have Burns represent him, Consiglio said.
"He's competent right now. No doubt about it," Consiglio said.
Consiglio said he objected to the competency evaluation because it means more delay before Staton's execution is carried out. Doyle, who intends to appoint a psychiatrist to conduct the evaluation, said any delay will be for 90 days.
Doyle said the post-conviction petition Staton prepared needs a lot of work, a point that Burns supported.
Burns told the judge that he intended to "fight aggressively" for Staton but made it clear that he also felt it was his role to "formulate the legal arguments" that will be presented to the court.
Staton is asking for a new trial based on ineffective trial counsel.
The hearing Thursday may be just the start of a lengthy and intense battle over Staton's conviction and sentence.
Five people watched the hearing and were taking notes. Neither Burns nor the judge knew who they were. When asked, no one from the group would say who they were.
After the hearing, Burns met with the group and said they represented the federal Public Defender's Office from Pittsburgh.
This is an indication that the Staton death penalty case may end up in the federal court if he loses his state court appeals.
The federal public defender's office and the Defender Association of Philadelphia, an anti-death penalty group, are already representing William Wright III, formerly of Altoona, who is on death row for a 1998 Blair County murder.