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Ross’ plea satisfies victim’s mother

‘He can never again say that he is innocent’

Miller

MARTINSBURG — Paul Aaron Ross’ plea to third-degree murder gave Pamela Sunderland satisfaction that she hasn’t had since her daughter’s death in 2004.

Ross — charged with killing and sexually assaulting 26-year-old Tina S. Miller of Hollidaysburg — entered no contest pleas on Tuesday in Blair County Court.

“I know (Ross) said ‘no contest’ in court, but that’s just a legal term,” Sunderland said at her Martinsburg home on Friday.

“To me, he can never again say that he is innocent,” she said.

While some defendants render no contest pleas to avoid admitting guilt in court, Pennsylvania law treats no contest pleas as convictions, with no distinction in sentencing procedures.

“He’s not going to spend all those years in prison for something he didn’t do,” Sunderland said.

Ross has been in jail since September 2004 when he was arrested and charged in the murder of Miller, Sunderland’s daughter.

Ross and Miller met in the early morning hours of June 27, 2004, at a Hollidaysburg bar, then traveled to Scotch Valley, where they partied at a residence with three others who had been at the bar.

Miller was last seen with Ross, when they were dropped off around 4:30 a.m. at Canoe Creek State Park near Ross’ home.

About eight hours later, Miller’s body was found face down and partly submerged in a tributary to the lake at the state park.

An autopsy and an examination of her body showed that she had been strangled, drowned, beaten and sexually assaulted. She was bound and gagged by duct tape.

On Tuesday morning, while jurors were in the 10th hour of deliberations, they sent a note to President Judge Elizabeth Doyle, asking for definitions of malice and first-degree murder. The judge, who provided those definitions among her earlier instructions, brought the jury into the courtroom and read the definitions again.

It was shortly thereafter that prosecutor Richard Consiglio said he was approached by defense attorneys Thomas Dickey and Thomas Hooper about Ross’ entering a plea to third-degree murder.

It was an option, Dickey said later, which eliminated the possibility of death or life-in-prison sentences with first-degree or second-degree murder convictions.

The plea, as rendered by Ross, called for him to be sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison for third-degree murder, an additional 10 to 20 years for aggravated assault, an additional 10 to 20 years for involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and an additional two to four years for unlawful restraint.

Ross’ total sentence, based on the plea, would be 42 to 84 years with credit for time served. Based on incarceration of about 16.5 years, the now 48-year-old Ross is looking at 25.5 more years in jail before reaching his minimum sentence. His release thereafter would rest with the state parole board.

“He’s going to be a very old man before he can even think about parole,” Sunderland said.

Upon learning of the proposed plea on Tuesday, Sunderland said her first reaction was: “No.”

After gaining a better understanding of the offer by reviewing it with Consiglio and retired state trooper Dave Aiello, she said she and her family members rendered their support.

Three days after making that decision, Sunderland said she has no regrets, partly because Ross gave up his appeal rights.

“Not being allowed to appeal again is a good thing because that means our family will never have to face him again in court,” she said.

Sunderland and her husband, Richard, attended every day of Ross’ most recent trial. They also attended every day of his first trial in late 2005, when the jury rendered a first-degree murder conviction and imposed a life-in-prison sentence.

After the 2005 conviction, Ross’ appeals began, and in 2011, the state Superior Court identified procedural errors warranting a new trial. Additional arguments generated a decade of legal debate before Ross’ new trial started April 13.

While the jury in the recent trial reached a verdict while Ross’ plea was being prepared, Sunderland said she has no regrets about supporting the plea instead of rejecting the plea and asking for the verdict, which wasn’t announced in court.

The jury’s convictions would have allowed Ross to have all of his appeal options again, Sunderland said.

While the death penalty was again an option in Ross’ recent trial, Sunderland said she didn’t believe it would be carried out.

“The first time around, we were in favor of the death penalty, but we knew they really don’t carry it out in Pennsylvania,” she said. “This time, I was reconciled to the fact that it would never happen.”

State Corrections Department records show that since 1976, Pennsylvania has executed three inmates, the last in July 1999.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 814-946-7456.

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