HOLLIDAYSBURG - The defense attorney struck in the face by his client, death row inmate Andre Staton, at the conclusion of a hearing last May is suing the Blair County commissioners, prison board and sheriff, charging that security should have been tighter in the courtroom.
Attorney Timothy S. Burns, 40, whose has a law office in Ebensburg, is still recuperating from the head blow he received from Staton on May 13.
Staton was irate that Blair County Judge Elizabeth Doyle would not recuse herself from further hearings in his case and would not permit him to represent himself.
Burns, who was appointed as Staton's attorney for post-trial appeals, recommended that Staton not be allowed to represent himself in a death penalty case because of the complexities involved in such appeals.
As the hearing came to a conclusion, Staton, whose hands were handcuffed in the front to a restraint belt, was able to clasp his hands and raise his arms, allowing him to slam his cuffs and hands into Burns' face.
In a lawsuit filed with the Blair County Prothonotary and Clerk of Courts Office, attorney Robert P. Petyak of Ebensburg claims that the county and its officials were negligent and is asking for civil damages in excess of $50,000 on each of five counts.
Petyak stated Burns is suffering from a variety of ailments related to the Staton assault.
He has named commissioners and prison board members Terry Tomassetti, Diane Meling and Ted Beam Jr.; other prison board members District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio, Controller Richard Peo, Judge Daniel J. Milliron and Sheriff Mitchell Cooper; as well as three deputies who were in the courtroom during the attack as defendants.
The commissioners and the other officials were sent a notice of intent to sue by Petyak nearly two weeks ago, but as of Monday, they had not seen the 92-page lawsuit.
Tomassetti said he
couldn't discuss the lawsuit because his office hasn't been served and because he doesn't comment on issues in litigation.
Staton was convicted of first-degree murder and given a death sentence in 2006 for fatally stabbing his estranged girlfriend Beverly Yohn eight times in 2004 during an early morning attack in the home where she was living after she left him.
His conviction and sentence were upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Feb. 21, 2012. In the ensuing months, Burns was appointed by Doyle to represent Staton in post-trial proceedings, but Staton throughout the appeal period filed his own petitions and insisted on representing himself.
After being hit in the courtroom, Burns was unconscious for a short period of time before being taken to UPMC Altoona, where he was released, Petyak states in the lawsuit. Two days later, the symptoms of traumatic brain injury, or severe concussion, emerged, and Burns was taken from his law office by ambulance to Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown.
His injuries have resulted in post-traumatic stress, panic attacks, anxiety, periods of depression, dizziness, problems with balance, headaches and severe eye aches, according to court papers.
Government agencies typically have immunity from lawsuits, but Petyak addresses that issue in the lawsuit, stating Burns was a "public invitee" to the courthouse and entitled to protection in the courtroom.
The prison board has no written policies concerning transportation of inmates, the lawsuit stated, and it is charged, Staton, a knowingly violent individual, was not properly monitored in the courtroom: his hands were cuffed in the front, not the back; he was not wearing an electronic restraining device; and he was permitted to stand in close proximity to Burns as the hearing ended.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.