Ross bite mark appeal rejected

Defense sought clarity on validity of evidence to be used at retrial

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has rejected a defense request to clarify the validity of bite mark evidence that the prosecution intends to use in the retrial of Paul Aaron Ross, charged in the murder of a Hollidaysburg woman nearly 14 years ago.

The state appeals court ordered a Ross retrial seven years ago this week, but attempts to schedule the trial have been hampered repeatedly by legal issues that the prosecution and defense attorneys hope to resolve pretrial.

Ross, now 45, is being housed at the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy for the June 2004 murder of Tina S. Miller.

Miller was 26 years old when her body was found partially submerged near a boat launch at Canoe Creek State Park in Frankstown Township.

Her mouth and wrists were bound with duct tape.

Death was the result of strangulation and drowning, according to the finding of the Blair County coroner.

The prosecution sought the death penalty, but a jury in 2005, after finding Ross guilty of murder in the first degree, refused to impose death. Instead Ross was sentenced to life plus 24 to 48 years.

A three-judge panel concluded on May 13, 2011, that Ross did not receive a fair trial.

His Altoona attorney, Thomas M. Dickey, did not have time to adequately prepare his defense, the panel ruled.

A second issue was that the prosecution’s introduction of “prior bad acts” by Ross to explain his possible “motive” for killing Miller. This consisted of testimony from a former wife, a girlfriend and a fiancee, who talked about Ross’ violence toward them.

The Superior Court ruled that the bad acts testimony involved women with whom Ross had longtime relationships and thus was not consistent with the facts of the Miller homicide in which the victim and Ross met at a private party on the evening of June 25.

Since the retrial was ordered, several major issues have come to the forefront.

Blair County District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio initially fought to have the Ross verdict restored. That was rejected.

He then announced that he would seek the death penalty, a proposal that Ross’ death penalty attorney, Thomas K. Hooper of Blair County, fought in the appeals courts, contending that it would expose Ross to double jeopardy because the trial jury had rejected the death penalty.

The defense lost on that issue, and the death penalty remains on the table.

Consiglio has stated he intends to utilize bite mark evidence that allegedly shows a mark on the victim’s body was “consistent” with Ross’ bite, although not conclusory.

The defense is challenging the introduction of bite mark evidence and has brought a representative of the New York-based Innocence Project, Chris Fabricant, into the case.

Fabricant in an argument before former Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva argued the scientific community has turned against bite mark evidence, and he stated 29 convictions nationwide have been overturned due to such faulty evidence.

Consiglio contended bite marks remain accepted in the scientific community.

The judge refused to grant a Frye hearing to test the continued use of bite mark science and refused to bar its use during the Ross retrial.

That led Dickey to appeal the ruling to the Superior Court, but the court has refused to provide pretrial guidance on the issue.

“The petition for permission to appeal is denied,” stated the Superior Court in an unattributed order Wednesday.

The ruling however does not clear the way for the retrial.

The defense can ask for hearing before a larger panel of the Superior Court or can ask for a review by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

A third defense option is to allow the case to return to the Blair County trial list but continue its opposition to the use of bite mark evidence.

The defense also has requested a change of venue — an issue normally resolved in Blair County during jury selection — because of extensive publicity in the Ross case.

Also, a defense DNA expert, Dr. Richard Saferstein from New Jersey, who was expected to testify, has died. The defense will need time to find a new expert witness.

Attorneys involved in the case are under a gag order barring public comment.

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