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Court rejects homicide appeal

Ellis argued he wasn’t given fair treatment during Hackney case

The Pennsylvania Superior Court on Tuesday rejected claims by a Philadelphia man that he didn’t receive a fair trial for the 2013 murder of Stephen Lamont Hackney of Altoona.

Hackney was living on the 100 block of Walnut Avenue on July 14, 2013, when Kashif Omar Ellis of Philadelphia entered his home and shot him three times, killing him almost instantly, according to testimony at his trial.

Ellis then scooped up money and drugs and fled the home, accompanied by his girlfriend Taylor Griffith and Qasim L. Shariff Green.

Griffith, who knew Hackney, first entered the home and texted Ellis that she saw large quantities of narcotics and money, and she noted that Hackney was alone and unarmed.

The Superior Court opinion said Griffith unlocked the home’s back door so that Ellis and Green could enter.

Hackney, 37, was found dead in his bedroom.

While fleeing, Green dropped a cellphone in the alley behind the home, and it became instrumental in the ensuing investigation.

Altoona police were able to utilize a geo-location mapping program to determine that Green, Ellis and Griffith were in area of Hackney’s home the night of the murder and later to determine that Ellis and Griffith fled to the Philadelphia area following the killing.

The three were arrested in 2017.

Green, 26, eventually pleaded to third-degree murder and is serving 10 to 25 years at the State Correctional Institution at Smithfield in Huntingdon County.

Griffith, 30, became a witness for the prosecution and is serving 15 to 30 years for third-degree murder at SCI Muncy.

In January 2019, Ellis, 34, was found guilty of multiple charges including first-degree murder, robbery, burglary, intimidation of a witness and drug violations.

Ellis was sentenced in April 2019 to life without parole, plus five to 10 years.

He is incarcerated at SCI Coal Township, Northumberland County.

Ellis, through his Altoona attorney, R. Thomas Forr Jr., appealed the verdict and sentence to Pennsylvania Superior Court.

That appeal raised questions that, the defense charged, showed Ellis did not receive a fair trial:

— He was “paraded” before the jury while shackled.

— His phone conversations while in prison awaiting trial were intercepted.

— He should have been granted a hearing to challenge the affidavit of probable cause used to obtain a search warrant for Green’s cellphone, noting that Altoona Police Detective Sgt. Matthew Starr, who prepared the affidavit, was later dismissed from the police department on charges of theft.

— Blair County’s judges and district attorney staff should have recused themselves because Griffith’s mother, Robin Patton, is the Blair County prothonotary and clerk of courts.

— He was denied a continuance of his trial in early 2019.

A three-judge panel of the Superior Court, Mary P. Murray, Maria McLaughlin and Correale F. Stevens, denied Ellis’ contenion he did not receive a fair trial. The court’s 24-page opinion supported Blair County Judge Elizabeth Doyle’s reasoning on the issues.

Doyle, for instance, pointed out there was no evidence the jury ever saw Ellis in shackles, and she noted restraints were used on Ellis due “his numerous misconducts in pre-trial detention, his threatening to kill a commonwealth witness (Griffith), and his unruly courtroom behavior.”

The restraints, Doyle stated, were necessary to ensure safety and courtoom order.

“We therefore find no merit to (Ellis’) first issue,” the Superior Court judges stated.

As to Ellis’ wiretap complaints, the appeals court noted Pennsylvania law permits the interception of inmate phone calls, and the appeals court judges concluded Doyle’s ruling dismissing attempts by the defense to suppress the phone calls was “supported by record and law.”

Addressing Starr’s preparation of the search warrant for Green’s telephone, the Superior Court noted the defense pointed to no statements in the search warrant that it regarded as false.

It also rejected the idea that local officials should have recused themselves from the Ellis’ prosecution because Griffith’s mother is a county row officer.

“There is no legal authority for the proposition that when a biological relative of a county row office is called as witness, the district attorney and the entire bench of that county must remove themselves from the case,” the Superior Court stated.

It mentioned also that First Deputy Prothonotary Vicki Claar testified that steps were taken in the office to “insultate” Patton from any involvement in the Ellis’ case.

“Upon review, we discern no evidence to support a finding of bias, prejudice or unfairness,” the court said.

As to the defense claim the trial should have been delayed because it needed more time to prepare, the Superior Court judges reported several continuances had already been granted and the defense was well aware that a trial date was set for January 2019.

The appeals court found no merit to other defense claims that included alleged withholding of evidence and a challenge to the lack of a search warrant when obtaining information from the phone mapping program.

Attorney Forr said there may be a request for Supreme Court review of some of the issues.

Forr said Wednesday he sent the opinion “to my client to determine what he thinks.”

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