Piner challenges evidence leading to conviction

HOLLIDAYSBURG — An Altoona man convicted in 2013 of cocaine-trafficking offenses is continuing to challenge the investigation and legal proceedings where he was identified as a major player in a corrupt organization’s pipeline.

Kenneth Jon Piner Sr., 58, incarcerated at the State Correctional Institute at Rockview, took the witness stand Thursday in Blair County Court to raise questions about the evidence leading to his arrest and conviction, resulting in a sentence of 36 to 72 years in prison.

“One condition of my guilty plea was that I had to testify before the grand jury,” Piner said Thursday. “And yeah, I sold some coke. That’s what I testified.”

The grand jury came to a different conclusion as it recommended criminal charges be filed against 14 people, including Piner, who investigators said were involved in a cocaine distribution business under the direction of Damion “Benny” Floyd of Baltimore. Cocaine was transported into Altoona where it was divided and distributed from the former Corner Bar and Grille in Altoona.

The prosecutors told the grand jury “that me and my brother were running this thing,” Piner said Thursday on the witness stand. “That’s fraud.”

Judge Daniel J. Milliron, who presided over the 2013 trial and reviewed numerous motions associated with the case, asked Piner’s current defense attorney, Richard Corcoran, to prepare a revised post-conviction appeal focusing on Piner’s best arguments for a new trial.

During Thursday’s hearing, Milliron dismissed a few of Piner’s arguments, as outlined in a post-conviction appeal filed in May. One argument insisted that the grand jury became prejudiced against Piner when prosecutors mentioned that Piner was “involved” in a murder for which he was never charged.

The state Superior Court, in an earlier ruling, found that Piner wasn’t entitled to relief on that claim, Deputy Attorney General Christopher Schmidt told Milliron.

Milliron also acknowledged again Thursday that Piner is entitled to be resentenced based on the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring mandatory sentences to be unconstitutional. Even though Milliron has said that he intends to reduce Piner’s sentence to a level more comparable with time being served by co-defendants, Piner’s resentencing remains on hold because of his post-convictions appeals.

Piner’s trial attorney, R. Thomas Forr, also testified at Thursday’s hearing about the effort he made to defend Piner, including what he believed was a “brilliant” defensive argument to get wiretap evidence suppressed.

“The Superior Court seemed to ignore it,” Forr said of his argument.

Schmidt pointed out to Forr that during trial, Piner testified and admitted to selling cocaine.

“I viewed him as being a minor player,” Forr said.

Forr also testified about the short time he had to prepare for trial because Piner’s trial was scheduled quickly after another defendant’s trial was canceled. Forr said he learned Piner’s case would go to trial about four days before he had to be in court to select a jury. Milliron asked for a typed transcript of the jury selection proceedings held in March 2013.