HOLLIDAYSBURG - The blow that death-row inmate Andre Staton inflicted on his attorney at the conclusion of a May 13 hearing was "an unprovoked cowardly attack," Blair County District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio testified Tuesday in Staton's preliminary hearing on assault charges.
The district attorney, in an unusual move, took the witness stand because he was looking directly at Staton and defense attorney Tim Burns during that hearing in Blair County Judge Elizabeth Doyle's courtroom. When it happened, he turned to Deputy District Attorney Wade Kagarise and said, "Did you see that?"
His question to Kagarise was more rhetorical, a statement of alarm.
Staton was bound in a restraint belt, his hands cuffed to the belt, but he was able to shift the belt to his right side and then swing his cuffed arms and body into Burns' face, sending the lawyer down into his chair, which broke, and then onto the floor, Consiglio said.
The incident "was a quick, one-second deal," he testified.
As Consiglio explained what occurred, he used a laser pointer to focus on events that were depicted on a courtroom videotape. As the blow landed, two sheriff's deputies instantly grabbed Staton's back, slamming him into the defense table and then removing him from the courtroom.
Another deputy approaching Staton from the front can be seen motioning Doyle from the bench; the hearing abruptly concluded.
The blow hit Burns on the temple, across his right eye, nose and forehead.
According to medical records introduced into the case Tuesday morning by state police Trooper Patrick Snyder, Burns is temporarily away from work as he recovers from the head wound.
Burns, a single practitioner with an office in Ebensburg, was not present because his doctors have ordered rest to cure what he said in a written statement was "severe post-traumatic concussion syndrome," which causes him to have trouble with his memory, comprehension and ability to focus.
In the days following the blow to the head, Burns also suffered a heart attack.
While Staton's newly appointed attorney, Mark Zearfaus, argued before Magisterial District Judge Paula M. Aigner that the prosecution, led by Deputy District Attorney Jackie Bernard, did not prove Burns suffered from serious bodily injury, Aigner bound over five charges against Staton for trial in Blair County Court.
Staton faces charges of simple assault and four counts of aggravated assault, including aggravated assault by a life prisoner, which carries a sentence of life behind bars as a way to protect attorneys who represent violent inmates facing the death penalty.
Although Staton is on death row for the 2004 murder of his estranged girlfriend, Beverly Yohn, Bernard explained why serious charges against Staton are being pursued.
"You can't let people not have consequences," she said.
The attack against Burns came during a hearing in which Doyle was laying the groundwork for a post-conviction review of Staton's 2006 conviction and death sentence.
Staton was upset because Doyle refused to recuse herself, and she decided to retain Burns, who argued against a Staton motion that he be allowed to represent himself.
Security was tight Tuesday with Sheriff Mitchell Cooper in the small courtroom and with two deputies remaining close to Staton at all times.
One deputy was placed between Staton and Zearfaus during the hearing. The deputy looked at Staton and extended his arm so it was between client and lawyer.
Zearfaus spent time alone with Staton prior to the hearing and stated at its conclusion, "I didn't feel I was in fear of serious bodily injury."
He said Staton was "fine" and conversed reasonably with him.
Burns, who is under contract by the county to handle post trial homicide appeals for indigent clients, is upset that Blair County is not offering him any financial aid or coverage.
On Tuesday he sent out a statement to members of the Pennsylvania Association of Defense Lawyers complaining Blair County will not offer him "one penny for my injuries."
Burns said in an email, "I believe what has happened to me is a grave injustice to the defense bar, and I don't want it to happen again.
"This day alone [Tuesday] I have four doctor's appointments, and two next week. Meanwhile my law office I [am] operating off my retirement and small stipend from Blair County until that stops. I want justice."
The hearing Tuesday was viewed by Ebensburg attorney Robert P. Petyak, who said he was there on Burns' behalf but who said he was not authorized to make any statements about the case.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.