Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Judge Ponders Conviction Appeal in Weigle Case

By Jim Runkle

April 8, 2008

Lock Haven Express-Lock Haven, PA

Judge J. Michael Williamson has some doubt about whether the testimony of an expert witness can be considered a “fact.”

He appeared skeptical at a hearing Monday, as defense attorney Paul Ryan argued expert testimony — when it conflicts with earlier expert testimony — can set the stage for a reversal of conviction and a new trial.

The issue was raised in Clinton County Court in the case of the Commonwealth vs. Matthew Weigle. Williamson said he would consider the arguments and issue a written decision.

Weigle and his former girlfriend, Alexandra McClellan, were arrested May 13, 1997 and charged with murder and conspiracy in the 1996 beating death of McClellan’s 11-month-old son, Devin.

Both were found guilty of third-degree murder and conspiracy by a Susquehanna County jury on April 10, 1999 following a six-week trial, and sentenced to 18 to 38 years in prison.

Weigle is now serving his 11th year in prison.

McClellan won the right to a new trial, which was held late last year and resulted in a guilty verdict on the lesser charge of manslaughter.

She has since been set free.

Before that trial, McClellan’s attorneys argued her former attorneys were ineffective. Weigle’s new attorneys wanted to make that same argument, but were unable to do so because legal documents were not filed in a timely manner.

Ryan filed a petition on behalf of Weigle, claiming evidence that came to light during McClellan’s second trial represented “newly discovered evidence” and could be used to allow a new trial for Weigle.

In this and earlier hearings on the question, District Attorney Mike Salisbury has characterized the situation as “not new evidence but opinion.”

Using expert testimony as after-discovered evidence sufficient enough for a new trial, Salisbury said, would lead to a never-ending series of trials as defense attorneys shopped for opinion after opinion to bolster their clients’ cases.

At the first joint trial for McClellan and Weigle, a forensic pathologist testified the child died within 15 to 20 minutes after he received injury. At McClellan’s second trial, another forensic expert testified the child could have received his injuries many hours prior to his death.

The point is important because the second opinion expands the window of that child’s death to include times Weigle was not present in the house.

Other forensic testimony suggested the injuries could have occurred 24 hours before Devin died.

Ryan said the court could rightly believe the newly presented opinion was not new evidence — but had to look at the difference between 15 minutes and 24 hours as a “fact” for the purpose of considering a new trial.

At the time of the trial, Weigle’s attorneys attempted to present the expert opinion of their own forensic pathologist, Dr. John Shane, but chose not to, according to Weigle’s attorney, John Felix.

An attempt to submit the expert testimony of another forensic specialist, Dr. Michael Baden, was thwarted when then District Attorney Ted McKnight argued he had not been given the doctor’s reports and written opinion prior to trial.

Several experts were presented as witnesses at the subsequent McClellan trial. McClellan was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter — but not guilty of third-degree murder and conspiracy — last November.

Ryan argued McClellan’s acquittal should also clear Weigle of those more serious crimes. Further, he said the testimony of Dr. Baden qualifies as new evidence for the purpose of overturning his conviction.

Judge Williamson appeared to disagree with Ryan over whether the acquittal could play a significant role in Weigle’s legal battle. Williamson said he could see a scenario where the first jury could have acquitted McClellan of everything, “and it would not be inconsistent with what happened to Mr. Weigle.”

Weigle has been incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Greensburg since 1999.

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