A sharply divided state Superior Court on Wednesday vacated the first-degree murder conviction of Paul Aaron Ross and ordered a new trial for the Hollidaysburg-area man.
The court, by a 5-4 decision, said Ross' court-appointed attorney, Thomas M. Dickey, did not have enough time to prepare his defense and that the prosecution was improperly allowed to introduce so-called "prior bad acts" Ross allegedly committed against other women.
Ross, 40, was convicted in 2005 for the 2004 murder of Tina Miller, 26, at Canoe Creek State Park.
"This is really a two-issue case. The court not only saw that we should have had more time to prepare - something that would have caused a new trial on its own - but also that the bad acts testimony alone was enough for a new trial," Dickey said.
"In cases like this, you always defend the Constitution. It's always the big cases like murder where the Constitution gets attacked. We're pleased with the decision, but we don't feel good about this death," he said.
Ross hired Dickey before the trial, after firing the public defender who was representing him. Dickey asked for a continuance, but Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva refused.
Because of the refusal, Kopriva "manifestly abused" her discretion, the five-judge majority ruled.
Dickey likened it to "flying by the seat of his pants."
"Attorney Dickey had to give his opening statement to the jury without knowing the opinions of his expert witnesses, one of whom (a criminologist) had been retained within days of the start of trial and was still reviewing the bulk of the Commonwealth's physical evidence and formulating opinions as the trial proceeded," Judge Christine L. Donohoe wrote for the majority.
The majority - including Judges Sallie Mundy, Judith F. Olson, Paula Francisco Ott and David N. Wecht - also said Kopriva abused her discretion by allowing the prior bad acts testimony from three of Ross' former girlfriends.
"The law states that when you start using bad acts in a trial, it strips away a person's presumption of innocence," Dickey said.
The other four judges disagreed with their colleagues.
"My careful review of the certified record reveals: 1) that Ross received consistent and appropriate legal representation; 2) that Ross' experts were able to assist Ross' counsel in preparing a defense; 3) that Ross' requests for additional preparation time were properly considered and honored by the trial court; 4) that Ross suffered no prejudice warranting a new trial; and 5) that the evidence of prior bad acts was admissible," Judge Cheryl Lynn Allen wrote.
President Judge Correale F. Stevens and Judges John T. Bender and Jack A. Panella joined in the dissent.
The new ruling came after a panel of three Superior Court judges ordered a new trial in May 2011.
"We asked for an en banc [nine-judge panel] appeal because we thought the original ruling was incorrect," Blair County Deputy District Attorney Wade Kagarise said. "We continue to believe the decision is incorrect but we respect the court's ruling. There were very strong opinions on both sides of the issues; the minority well stated our position."
The ruling may be appealed to the state Supreme Court, something being strongly considered, Kagarise said. District Attorney Richard Consiglio will seek the death penalty against Ross if the new trial order stands, Kagarise said.