HOLLIDAYSBURG - Three aggravated assault charges against death row inmate Andre Staton - brought after he slammed his cuffed fists into the face of his lawyer nine months ago - have been dismissed
by Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva.
One of those charges, assault by a life prisoner, carried with it a life sentence.
The judge, who issued her decision Wednesday afternoon, cited a 36-year-old Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that stated even though a punch was delivered to a person's head, it either had to cause bodily injury, or there had to be an intent to cause bodily injury for aggravated assault to be charged.
The state's highest court contended in its 1978 decision that "where the victim did not actually sustain the requisite serious bodily injury, we cannot say that the mere fact that a punch was delivered to that portion of the body, is sufficient, without more, to support a finding that [a defendant] intended to inflict serious bodily injury."
Staton's Blair County attorney Mark Zearfaus argued in a recent hearing that Staton did not intend to seriously hurt his attorney, Timothy Burns, who until the incident last May was a court-appointed appeals attorney for Blair County defendants.
At the time, Staton was upset because he wanted to serve as his own attorney, and he wanted the judge in his case, Elizabeth Doyle, to recuse herself.
When Doyle refused to dismiss Burns, and when she would not recuse herself, Staton became agitated stating, "Let's get it done," referring to the death penalty.
The hearing was adjourned, and while Staton appeared to be shuffling papers and Burns was standing, Staton lashed out, slamming his hands and cuffs into Burns face, across the eyes. Burns went down and was momentarily unconscious.
He was eventually diagnosed with a concussion.
Burns has subsequently sued Blair County and its prison board for failing to protect him. That civil lawsuit is in its initial stages.
Staton faces the death penalty for the 2004 stabbing death of a former girlfriend, Beverly Yohn.
Deputy District Attorney Jackie Bernard said Staton had to be held accountable for the attack on Burns even though he is already sentenced to death.
Zearfaus filed pretrial motions including a request to dismiss the most serious charges.
Kopriva said she reviewed testimony from the preliminary hearing, the police affidavit of probable cause and case law before concluding Burns' injuries "do not appear to rise to the level of serious bodily injury. ... It does not appear that even though attorney Burns was allegedly rendered unconscious for a few seconds, there is no further evidence that he was in substantial risk of death.
"There is no evidence that attorney Burns suffered any facial fractures, bleeding or permanent disfigurement, nor endured a prolonged stay in the hospital," she continued.
While Burns had a concussion, it did not rise to a level of severity cited in a prior Supreme Court case in which the victim of a punch fell and hit his head on the pavement, resulting in a prolonged stay in the hospital and rehabilitation facilities.
She pointed out Staton, quickly restrained by sheriff's deputies, was not making threats and did not resist deputies.
The judge let stand a fourth charge of aggravated assault designed to protect individuals like Burns who was court-appointed to represent Staton.
In other rulings, the judge rejected Staton's request for an outside jury to try the case, and she refused his request to recuse Blair County judges from his case.
Zearfaus said Staton's intent "was not to cause bodily injury." He said Staton's intent was to "cause conflict" that day, showing his displeasure with Judge Doyle's rulings.
Staton is being prosecuted by Pennsylvania Deputy Attorney General Daniel Dye.
The case was moved to the AG's office because Blair County District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio was an eyewitness to the attack and testified against Staton during the preliminary hearing.
Burns' civil attorney, Robert Petyak of Ebensburg, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.