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Court reinstates first-degree murder conviction for Zachary Witman
The Pennsylvania Superior Court has determined a York County judge erred when he granted Zachary Paul Witman a new trial for the brutal stabbing death of his younger brother.
On Tuesday, the appellate court reinstated the conviction and overturned the ruling of Common Pleas Judge John C. Uhler, who in December 2007 threw out Witman's 2003 first-degree murder conviction and granted him a new trial.
Uhler said he based his decision on the grounds that Witman's former defense attorney, David McGlaughlin, had been ineffective at trial.
Uhler said McGlaughlin allowed prosecutors to use a pair of Witman's bloodstained socks during trial, despite having been granted a suppression motion on the socks for improper seizure. McGlaughlin later said he thought the socks could work to his former client's advantage.
Witman's new attorneys argued that without the socks, the case against Witman has been "substantially weakened," according to court documents.
The York County District Attorney's Office appealed Uhler's decision to the state Superior Court.
Witman was 15 years old when his 13-year-old brother, Gregory Witman, was stabbed and slashed 65 times and nearly decapitated in the laundry room of the family's New Freedom home on Oct. 2, 1998.
Zachary Witman is now 25 years old.
'Overwhelming' evidence: In their Tuesday ruling, the Superior Court noted that:
"(We) find that at trial appellee's socks served, at most, as corroboration for better, much more incriminating evidence. We find that even if the socks had not been entered into evidence, the remaining evidence of guilt was overwhelming and appellee would still have been convicted. Since there is no reasonable probability that the result at trial would have been different had the socks not been admitted, there can be no finding of prejudice to appellee and, therefore, no finding of ineffective assistance of trial counsel."
Senior prosecutor Tim Barker said he's "extremely" pleased with the ruling.
"We believed when we filed the appeal that we would be successful, because we believed the facts of the case and the law ... supported this decision," he said. "They focused on the overwhelming nature of the evidence in this case ... how regardless of the socks, all the evidence that remained was so overwhelming that there was no other reasonable verdict in this case other than guilty of first-degree murder."
Barker said Zachary Witman's attorneys have 30 days to appeal the ruling to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
He also noted that the Superior Court's Tuesday ruling remands the matter back to Judge Uhler, who must now rule on the remaining ineffective-assistance claims that are still outstanding.
Devastating Witman's father, Ron Witman, said the ruling was a blow.
"It's devastating," he said. "Zach is of the position that this is just going to delay his release, because he knows he is innocent and is convinced that at some point, there will be a panel of judges or a ruling that will exonerate him or give him the opportunity for a new trial."
Ron Witman and a defense attorney said they believe the Superior Court either ignored or misunderstood the significance of the socks.
"It's our opinion the case is wrongly decided," said New York City attorney Amy Adelson, one of Witman's attorneys. "Judge Uhler, who is familiar with the trial and knew the importance of the socks to the verdict, correctly decided counsel was ineffective in making the unilateral decision to (allow into trial) the suppressed evidence."
Adelson said a final decision has not yet been made on whether to appeal.
"We've been reviewing the ruling and considering our options, one of which is seeking review by the (state) Supreme Court, and I expect we will do so," she said.
Adelson also noted that "many" issues remain on the post-conviction claim that Uhler "has already said are worthy of consideration," and which he will eventually consider.
"I believe that Judge Uhler is absolutely convinced that Zach was not able to get a fair trial," Ron Witman said. "His counsel was so ineffective that the jury didn't have the opportunity to render a valid decision.
"Zach made it very clear at his sentencing that he loves his brother and would never hurt him," he continued, noting that prosecutors never established a motive.
Defense attorney Norris Gelman was unavailable for immediate comment.
- Reach Elizabeth Evans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-5429.