The life sentence imposed last year on an Altoona man for his third sexual offense against a child has been overturned by the Pennsylvania Superior Court.
The three-judge panel upheld a Blair County jury's decision finding David A. Helsel, now 32, guilty of 16 offenses against two young girls, ages 12 and 15. But it also stated that Helsel's conviction on a charge of attempted rape of the 12-year-old girl constituted only his second offense against a child, not a third offense.
The ruling was made over Pennsylvania's "third strike," life-sentence provision for child sexual abuse.
Helsel still could receive a long sentence on the second offense charge, possibly encompassing several decades. Blair County Judge Elizabeth A. Doyle was ordered to resentence him on all charges.
Blair County Assistant District Attorney Dan Kiss, who prosecuted the case, said he could not comment on the Superior Court decision Friday afternoon because he had not seen the opinion.
Kiss also didn't know if he will appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Doyle has 120 days to resentence Helsel, if an appeal is not taken to the state's highest court.
"I'm happy," Helsel's attorney, Douglas Keating, said about the ruling.
Both sides in the case agreed that Helsel's 2010 conviction for his assault of the 12-year-old was his third serious sexual offense against a child.
On June 13, 1999, Helsel lured a 7-year-old child to go under the Altoona Eighth Street Bridge, where he raped her. A little over a month later, on Aug. 15, 1999, Helsel entered a bathroom and raped an 8-year-old girl.
Helsel went to prison for 10 years.
After his release from prison, he came upon the 12- and 15-year-old girls among several youngsters talking near an Altoona cemetery in June 2009.
He accused the children of knocking over headstones and he said the two girls had to go with him. Grasping them by the wrists, he took them to a wooded area, pulled a knife and committed sexual acts, police said.
He then told the 12-year-old girl that he wanted to have sex with her. The older child was able to run to the Bavarian Hall and police were contacted. Helsel was apprehended after a manhunt.
The jury found him guilty of attempted rape of a child, simple assault, terroristic threats, corruption of minors, possession of instruments of crime and other offenses.
Doyle imposed the life sentence requested by Kiss for a third offense, but Keating argued that based on the fact that Helsel was sentenced to concurrent jail terms for the first two offenses on the same day, they could be considered one offense for sentencing purposes.
Doyle rejected the argument, stating the law was clear, "Three separate criminal transactions, three convictions, three strikes."
The Superior Court judges used the same logic the state Supreme Court used in a three-strikes case involving a burglar who was sentenced for two burglaries on the same day. The Supreme Court ruled that the burglar had no time away from prison between the sentences for the first and second offenses to reform himself.