Court: Thomas received fair trial
Defense appealed conviction, saying Clearfield County man was unable to form intent to kill
The first-degree murder conviction of a Clearfield County man who killed his best friend’s brother was upheld Wednesday by the Pennsylvania Superior Court.
The court’s three-judge panel that reviewed the appeal concluded Dustin Tyler Thomas, 29, formerly of Hawk Run, received a fair trial before a Clearfield County jury last year.
Judge Paul E. Cherry on Sept. 25, 2018, sentenced Thomas to life in prison without parole.
Thomas is incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Somerset.
Defense attorney Steven M. Johnston filed an appeal with the Superior Court contending that the trial judge erred by not permitting the jury to consider voluntary manslaughter — a killing in the heat of passion — during its deliberations, which lasted four hours.
Johnson also maintained that a verdict of first-degree murder was contrary to the evidence, which showed that Thomas was under the influence of alcohol on the night of Oct. 30, 2017, when he shot 36-year-old Brett Bamat of Philipsburg RD in the chest following a shoving match outside Bamat’s home.
The defense presented evidence that Thomas’ blood-alcohol content was 0.3 percent, or nearly four times the amount of alcohol at which a person is presumed to be under the influence, when the shooting occurred.
With that amount of alcohol in his blood, the defense contended, Thomas was unable to form an intent to kill, a necessary element that must be proven to convict a suspect of first-degree murder.
While voluntary intoxication is not a defense to murder, the jury had the option of lowering the seriousness of the crime from first- to third-degree murder, if it determined Thomas was under the influence to the point he could not form an intent to kill.
The defense also contended Clearfield County District Attorney William Shaw engaged in prosecutorial misconduct.
Thomas was good friends with Tim Bamat, Brett’s brother, who at the time of the shooting was an inmate in the Perry County Prison.
On Oct. 30, 2017, Thomas was at Brett Bamat’s Morris Township home when Brett and Tim’s wife, Valerie, came home.
He had been drinking, and when Tim Bamat called to talk to his wife that night, he insisted Thomas leave the home.
Thomas became upset and engaged in a shoving match with the victim, at one point pulling a gun inside the home.
The argument continued outside, and Valerie Bamat testified she heard a shot and found Brett lying on the ground as Thomas drove away.
State police early the next morning arrested Thomas following a struggle as he returned to the Hawk Run home.
Superior Court judges Mary Jane Bowes, Anne E. Lazarus and Dan Pelligini ruled the defense waived its claim that the judge had improperly barred jury consideration of voluntary manslaughter because it did not object to omission of the charge prior to the start of jury deliberations.
When asked by the judge, following his charge to the jury, if there was “anything else,” the defense lawyer answered, “I don’t believe so, your honor.”
The failure to object at that point “renders the claim waived,” according to the Superior Court opinion.
Addressing the defense argument that there was no direct evidence of Thomas’ alleged intent to kill, the panel responded by noting, “The factfinders (jury) choose not to believe that Thomas suffered an ‘alcoholic blackout,’ or was so intoxicated at the time he shot the victim that he was unable to form the requisite intent.”
“This was within the province of the jury,” the appeals court opinion stated.
The defense challenged the DA’s aggressiveness during the trial, his objections and cross examination of the toxicologist presented by the defense and his remarks during closing argument.
“After reviewing the record, we do not find that the district attorney exceeded the appropriate level of civility,” stated the opinion, written by Lazarus.
Thomas can request further review of the decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.