Ross retrial slated for April
New trial scheduled in 2004 killing of Tina S. Miller
HOLLIDAYSBURG — The pending murder retrial of Paul Aaron Ross in the 2004 death of a 26-year-old Hollidaysburg woman is scheduled for trial in April in Blair County Court.
Ross, convicted in 2005 of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for killing Tina S. Miller, was awarded a new trial in 2011 after defense attorneys appealed trial errors to the state Superior Court.
After subsequent legal arguments resulted in years of multiple delays, Ross appears to be on the threshold of a retrial. Ross was in that same position in November when President Judge Elizabeth Doyle canceled jury selections in light of an increase in COVID-19 cases.
In court Friday, Doyle confirmed that Ross’ jury selection is slated for April 5-9, when potential jurors will be asked to complete questionnaires that the attorneys can use in the juror selection process. The trial is scheduled to start April 12 and stretch over two weeks.
Should Ross be convicted of first-degree murder during the upcoming trial, the jury will need to decide if a death sentence is warranted or if he should be sentenced to life in prison. At the end of his 2005 trial, the jury sentenced him to life in prison.
Testimony in the first trial indicated that Ross and Miller were at a private party and they were seen at Canoe Creek State Park where Miller’s body was found on June 27, 2004. Her partially nude and beaten body was found near a boat launch. Her mouth and wrists were bound with duct tape.
Evidence in the first trial revealed that Miller had a bite mark on her breast, with testimony indicating that it could have been made by Ross. During the pending trial, the bite mark may be referred to as “a pattern injury,” attorneys said Friday.
Since the 2005 trial, the use of bite marks as trial evidence has been criticized and challenged, with opponents continuing to maintain that they’re not valid as trial evidence. A significant portion of the delay in Ross’ retrial was linked to the debate over bite marks as evidence.
In court Friday, retired District Attorney Richard Consiglio, prosecutor in Ross’ first trial and appointed as lead prosecutor in the pending trial, spoke of a pathologist report referring to “a pattern injury” on Miller’s body.
Defense attorneys Thomas M. Dickey and Thomas Hooper, on record against the use of bite mark evidence at trial, said they would object to the report, which they said refers to a “pattern mark.”
“We object to that description because it’s similar to bite mark,” Hooper said.
“It doesn’t say bite mark,” Consiglio countered, indicating that he could present the report and refer to “a pattern injury” as language a pathologist uses.
Doyle also ruled Friday against a request Consiglio made to have two trial witnesses testify by video. The witnesses, one who lives in Harrisburg and one who lives in Costa Rica, referenced COVID-19 concerns when asked to travel to Blair County for the trial.
The Harrisburg witness has health issues, Consiglio said, and the Costa Rica witness fears that if the country again closes its borders because of COVID-19, she could be prevented from returning after testifying.
Dickey objected to allowing the witnesses to testify by video, pointing out that jurors will be instructed on how to evaluate the credibility of the witnesses, which includes their body language while testifying.
“That’s full body language, not just a face on a screen,” Dickey said.
Consiglio countered that defense attorneys will be able to get closer to a video screen than a testifying witness in the courtroom. Courtrooms also now feature Plexiglass barriers to lessen potential virus exposure.
Hooper told Doyle he identified no case law in support of Consiglio’s motion. In cases where this kind of request has been made, Hooper said the courts have repeatedly said no because that’s the law.
Consiglio said he made the request because it is allowed in light of the judicial emergency declaration due to COVID-19, which remains in place through April 30.
“It’s almost uncivilized to require them to come here,” Consiglio said.
Doyle said she recognizes that the current judicial emergency allows the option of witnesses testifying by video, except “when it impacts constitutional concerns.”
The judge said she would reserve the option to hear the request again if more information becomes available about the potential danger.