The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has upheld the first-degree murder convictions and death sentences imposed on an Altoona man who shot and killed three people at the United Veterans Association in 2005.
While the seven justices were unanimous that the evidence against Miguel A. Padilla was "unquestionably sufficient" to establish his guilt, they were divided on how a review of the death penalty should be handled.
The jury brought in from Cumberland County recommended death for Padilla after reviewing aggravating and mitigating circumstances.
The jury concluded that Padilla had committed multiple killings while perpetrating a felony and while creating a risk of death for others. The jury also found he committed the killings when he was not permitted under Pennsylvania law to carry a firearm.
Padilla's defense attorney, Ed Blanarik, stipulated that Padilla had committed a felony, which meant the jury was to assume that the aggravator was true.
The reason he stipulated to the aggravator was that Padilla was a citizen of Mexico and an illegal resident of the United States.
Had the prosecution been required to prove the aggravator, his status as an alien would have been put before the jury.
Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille concluded the defense "apparently at all costs" did not want the jury to learn of Padilla's status because of possible prejudice.
The justices also pointed out that the illegal possession of the firearm by an illegal alien was in fact a misdemeanor, not a felony.
The dilemma the justices faced when reviewing the case was whether stipulation by the defense attorney should be reviewed as part of the initial appeal or come before the court at a later date when, inevitably, the effectiveness of the defense attorney will be raised as part of a post conviction petition.
The justices decided that issue would be deferred until a later date.
Justice Max Baer wanted it addressed immediately.
Baer did not disagree with the jury's recommendation of death, noting there were three aggravators approved by the jury, but he concluded "that the jury's determination [of death] must be set aside because it may have been influenced by the invalid aggravating circumstance."
He went on to write, "I conclude that we should vacate the death sentence and remand for new sentencing hearing, rather than deferring this to post conviction review of counsel's ineffectiveness."
Padilla remains convicted of all three killings and remains under a sentence of death.
The 33-year-old is an inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Greene.
Blair County Deputy District Attorney Jackie Bernard said Friday, "We are obviously pleased with the decision. It was the right decision to be made."
She went on to explain that the prosecution believed the controversial stipulation by the defense was the right thing to do also because of the prejudice that could have resulted to Padilla had the jury known he was not a citizen.
The 62-page opinion in the case was written by Justice Seamus McCaffery.
During the early morning of Aug. 28, 2005, Padilla and two friends went to the UVA, an after-hours club on Union Avenue, and an argument erupted at the door.
Padilla became incensed and went to his friend's car where he retrieved a handgun and opened fire, killing the owner of the club, Alfred Mignogna; an employee, Frederick Rickabaugh; and patron Stephen Heiss. Padilla fired eight shots, and all hit their mark. All three victims died of chest wounds.
He fled but was apprehended by city police within a hour.
The defense launched six challenges to the convictions and the death sentences.
Padilla complained that he did not receive an attorney for 47 days after being jailed, which he said hurt his diminished capacity claim that he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol the night of the killings.
He challenged his death sentence and complained the court refused to allow him to get rid of his attorney, the public defender, who had initially refused to represent him.
He contended the judge in the case interfered with Mexican authorities who wanted to give Padilla assistance.
The justices methodically reviewed and disposed of each of the issues, pointing out that at one point Mexico provided Padilla with an attorney and that Padilla was represented within days of his arrest.
Padilla contended the court violated an international treaty by eventually barring his representation by Mexico, but the justices found there was no merit to that contention. McCaffery stated, "We must also point out that [Padilla's] assertions of prejudice from these alleged violations are particularly hollow."
Padilla and a brother came to the United States as children with their mother and eventually settled in Gallitzin.
A defense expert concluded that the shootings were the result of "an impulsive act with some elements of defensive activity toward a perceived threat mixed with a great deal of bad judgment."
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.