Lawyer wants confession suppressed
Southerland defense says statements in fatal shooting were unlawfully obtained
HOLLIDAYSBURG — The attorney for a teenager accused of firing the shot that killed 15-year-old Devon Pfirsching of Altoona in February 2020 is asking a Blair County judge to bar the use of an alleged confession at trial.
Altoona police unlawfully secured incriminating statements from 16-year-old Owen Southerland when detaining him against his wishes at police headquarters and when taken to an area near the shooting site to look for a gun, defense attorney Matthew J. McGregor said Thursday during a pretrial court hearing.
“Wasn’t it 14 times that Mr. Southerland said he didn’t want to talk?” McGregor asked Altoona Police Detective Sgt. Terry Merritts, the lead investigator, who testified Thursday before President Judge Elizabeth Doyle.
Merritts said Southerland wasn’t in custody when he came to police headquarters with his mother and stepfather, Stacey and Matthew Jackson, to report what he knew about the shooting near Jefferson Park.
Merritts said Southerland, at police headquarters, kept asking his mother if they could leave. His mother, Merritts said, kept urging her son to be cooperative and truthful.
Stacey Jackson said she did that because she thought her son had seen something relative to the fatal shooting.
“They never once told me that Owen could have been involved,” she said.
Merritts said Southerland initially lied to police when talking about the shooting.
After being shown some evidence, Merritts said Southerland “started to come clean” and spoke of having tossed the gun into a debris-filled yard near the shooting site on the 100 block of Fourth Avenue Alley.
Matthew Jackson testified that he encouraged his stepson to help police search for the gun. He said he did that after Altoona Police Detective Ashley Day told him that a firearm charge would be handled in juvenile court, a statement Jackson said was made in front of District Attorney Pete Weeks.
As police searched for the gun, however, Southerland allegedly told Lt. Nathan Snyder that he had “screwed up” and “ruined his life.”
“I’m the one who shot Devon,” Snyder recalled Southerland telling him.
Altoona Police Detective Sgt. Fred Wasser also testified to hearing Southerland’s admission.
“(Southerland) said: ‘I did it. I did it,’ then leaned over and sobbed,” Wasser said.
Southerland, subsequently charged with first-degree murder and related charges, petitioned to have his charges transferred to juvenile court, but was unsuccessful.
McGregor told Doyle on Thursday that his client’s rights were violated when Southerland’s mother and the stepfather “became agents of the police.” In a document filed with the court, McGregor accused the officers of using coercive tactics with the parents to secure the teenager’s incriminating statements in violations of his Fifth Amendment rights.
“When a 16-year old says, ‘I don’t want to talk anymore’ and the police officers continue … that is very troubling conduct to me,” McGregor said.
First Assistant District Attorney Nichole Smith told Doyle that prosecutors intend to “vigorously refute” that claim. Her intent, however, was put on hold pending resumption of the hearing on Aug. 12.
In the meantime, Doyle advised the attorneys that they should provide her with relevant legal rulings addressing when someone becomes an agent of police, the rendering of statements to police after expressing a desire not to talk and on the questioning of juveniles while in the custody of parents.
McGregor is also asking Doyle to review transcripts from Southerland’s preliminary and decertification hearings. He said there’s no evidence in support of a first-degree murder charge, which reflects an intentional killing.
Criminal charges indicate that Southerland and co-defendants Logan Persing and Damien Green lured Pfirsching to the shooting site by indicating that they wanted to buy marijuana from him. Instead, the trio planned to rob Pfirsching of his marijuana.
Southerland, who presented a gun during the robbery, allegedly scuffled with Pfirsching, then struck him with the gun which discharged. Pfirsching died of a single gunshot wound to his head.
Southerland and co-defendant Persing whose attorney, Thomas M. Dickey, has also pretrial motions under review, are scheduled for a jury trial from Oct. 18 to 25.
Dickey, in court Thursday, said he expects some of his motions to be resolved through a meeting with prosecutors. Others can be reviewed on Aug. 12 when Thursday’s hearing resumes, he said.
A third co-defendant, Omedro T. Davis Jr., was supposed to be tried with Southerland and Persing. But Doyle signed an order Wednesday excusing Davis and his defense attorney Scott N. Pletcher from Thursday’s hearing. She also indicated that his case is no longer joined with Southerland and Persing’s cases.
In a motion filed in late June with the court, Pletcher said his client, who was home on the night of the shooting, would be severely prejudiced if tried with the co-defendants.
Pletcher also objected to the proposed use of a photo during trial that would show Davis with a Glock handgun allegedly used to kill Pfirsching. Because police didn’t recover the firearm or the bullets used in the shooting, Pletcher objected to the alleged connection to be presented during trial.
In her Wednesday ruling, Doyle said there’s insufficient time to schedule hearings on Davis motions and have them addressed before the Oct. 6 jury selection date.
Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 814-946-7456.