Judge orders DNA retesting
Defense challenges Rodgers’ conviction in Lascoli death
HOLLIDAYSBURG — The judge presiding over the James Franklin Rodgers homicide case has ordered the retesting of the DNA found on key exhibits used to convict the then 17-year-old of first-degree murder.
Rodgers, sentenced to life in prison without parole, has been behind bars for 31 years.
He was arrested weeks after the body of 72-year-old Pasquale J. Lascoli was found June 8, 1988, in his home on the 2100 block of Sixth Avenue.
Lascoli had been stabbed between 60 and 70 times, and city police used DNA evidence to link Rodgers to the murder.
At the time, the use of DNA in crime detection was a novel science, a fact that led to a pretrial hearing to determine whether it was accepted by experts as valid for admission as evidence in a homicide case.
After a week of hearings, Senior Judge Ellis Van Horn of Bedford County decided to allow DNA results into the trial.
Key evidence elicited through DNA testing found Rodgers’ blood inside one of Lascoli’s front pant’s pockets where the victim allegedly kept his money.
Blood evidence uncovered after the crime also included a gray sweatshirt found weeks later in Altoona’s Prospect Park.
The DNA tests on the sweatshirt linked Rodgers to the murder, according to the prosecution.
Rodgers, now 48, is incarcerated in the State Correctional Institution at Somerset.
Because of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Miller v. Alabama, which determined mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder was cruel and unusual punishment, Rodgers will be resentenced.
He could receive another life term, which is what prosecutors are seeking, or a lesser sentence, one which will permit him to be paroled.
Senior Judge Daniel Lee Howsare of Bedford County has scheduled sentencing hearings for Wednesday and Thursday.
However, the defense in the Rodgers’ case is also challenging Rodgers’ conviction for Lascoli’s death and last December filed a petition seeking retesting of the DNA samples used in the trial.
A petition was filed by attorneys for the Federal Capital Habeas Unit, Kirk J. Henderson and Michael J. Berrigan, seeking new DNA tests under Pennsylvania Act 147 of 2018.
The act provides for post-conviction DNA testing and for the establishment of procedures compatible with FBI standards.
Blair County District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio and Assistant District Attorney Nichole Smith initially opposed the retesting request, but, in an order filed last week in the Office of the Blair County Prothonotary and Clerk of Courts, Howsare stated the prosecution has had a change of position, conceding Act 147 entitles Rodgers to re-examine “certain pieces of evidence using more advanced scientific testing.”
The prosecution objects, stated Howsare, that the new law entitles the defense to retesting of any piece of evidence of its choice.
But it does not object to new tests proposed for the victim’s pants pocket and the gray sweatshirt found at Prospect Park.
Howsare ordered new tests for those items.
He then ordered:
— The prosecution, within 30 days, is to prepare an inventory of evidence related to the case.
— The defense has 20 days to identify the items it wants tested.
— If no agreement can be reached between the two sides on which items will be tested, additional proceedings will be held.
— The two sides have 30 days to determine if they can agree of a testing laboratory and the procedure that will be utilized for retesting.
— If DNA is found that does not match Rodgers’ profile, the sample is to be compared to other profiles in the Combined DNA Index System in an attempt to find its donor.
There is one issue in which the sides disagree.
The defense attorneys want to test for a chemical referred to as EDTA, which can detect possible tampering with samples.
Smith pointed out the chemical EDTA can be found in many items and would mean little if it was detected in a blood sample.
She said it would “expand the scope (of the testing) impermissibly.”