HOLLIDAYSBURG - Two of Blair County's most experienced criminal defense lawyers, Thomas M. Dickey and Steven P. Passarello, were appointed Tuesday to represent the man accused of setting the Nov. 15 house fire that killed 3-year-old Darrel Etchison Jr.
Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva explained that the lawyers were named to represent Aaron Wilson Dishong, 62, of East Freedom because of the possibility that the prosecution will seek a death sentence against him.
Dishong is jailed without bail in Blair County Prison, charged with setting the early morning blaze that engulfed the duplex at 112 S. Second St.
Brandy Etchison, 33, and her two children, Madison, 2, and Darrel were home when the fire started.
Dishong set the fire in an effort to kill his girlfriend, a friend of Brandy Etchison, who supposedly was living at the Etchison home after she filed a protection-from-abuse complaint against Dishong, according to court documents.
The girlfriend was not at the home when the fire occurred.
Brandy Etchison was able to jump from the third story of the home with her daughter, both being injured in the process.
Darrel was found inside the structure after the fire was extinguished. He was taken to Altoona Regional Trauma Center where he was pronounced dead.
Police are still investigating the arson and death of the child, and the prosecution is reviewing facts of the case to determine if the killing included "aggravating circumstances" that would allow it to seek the death penalty, Blair County Deputy District Attorney Wade Kagarise said.
Four possible aggravating circumstances have been identified, Kagarise said.
Dickey and Passarello had little to say about the case. Dickey said he had only read the criminal complaint, and Passarello explained that he learned of his appointment Tuesday afternoon when he met with the judge.
Court rules require at least two attorneys be named to represent a defendant in a death penalty case: one to prepare the trial defense and the other to represent the defendant if he is convicted of first-degree murder and must go through a death penalty hearing.
If the prosecution decides not to seek the death penalty, one of the attorneys will be dismissed, Kopriva said..
Attorneys representing defendants in death penalty cases must be "death qualified," according to the rules of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Dickey and Passarello are the only county attorneys who meet the requirements.
Dickey said he and Passarello haven't yet decided who will represent Dishong during his trial or who will prepare the death penalty phase of the case.
The next step will be to meet with Dishong in preparation for a preliminary hearing that has been set for Dec. 5.
Dickey earlier this year represented John Gerholt of Mount Union for the murder of his wife in a death penalty case that was resolved when Gerholt accepted life in prison as an alternative.
He also represented Nicholas A. Horner, who killed two people in an Altoona robbery in 2009. That case went to trial with a jury eventually recommending life for Horner.
Passarello was the attorney in the death penalty case involving Mark Shirey of Bedford County, who gunned down his ex-wife's boyfriend. Shirey entered a plea for a life sentence in September.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.