Kevin Dowling and John Amos Small: 2 York County death row inmates back in court

Brandon Addeo
York Dispatch
John Amos Small

Two men on death row for decades-old homicides in York County had post-conviction relief hearings in county court on Tuesday.

One man, John Amos Small, 61, formerly of Hanover, had a status hearing in his post-conviction relief effort. Small has been imprisoned since 1997 after being convicted of the 1981 murder of 17-year-old Cheryl Marie Smith in West Manheim Township. He was accused of bludgeoning Smith to death and attempting to rape her in a wooded party area known as "The Pines."

The hearing was brief and a bit muddled. Judge Gregory M. Snyder presided over the hearing, during which Small’s attorney, public defender Michael Gonzalez, mentioned that the county court had previously recused itself from Small’s case after his conviction. The recusal, Gonzalez said, was due to allegations of misconduct by York County police and prosecutors.

More:A look at York County's death row inmates

“It’s a pretty convoluted case,” Gonzalez said during the hearing.

Gonzalez told the judge there were two sets of investigations in the murder — one that occurred close to the crime and another years later after the case went unsolved. In the second investigation, according to Gonzalez, some witnesses were “alleged to have been threatened.”

When asked after the hearing to clarify those allegations, Gonzalez declined comment.  

Gonzalez asked the judge to request the state’s Supreme Court to appoint another out-of-county judge to hear remaining proceedings.

“If I agree to (take the case), a convoluted case becomes even more convoluted,” Snyder said, before granting Gonzalez’s request. Prosecutor Gregory Simatic, of the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office, didn’t object to the defense’s request.

Kevin Brian Dowling

Dowling: Another death row inmate, Kevin Brian Dowling, 63, a former Lancaster County resident, also had a post-conviction hearing Tuesday.

Dowling has been imprisoned since 1998. He robbed and attempted to rape Spring Grove art gallery owner Jennifer Myers, 44, in 1996, then shot and killed her in 1997 just days before she was scheduled to testify against him in his trial. He provided law enforcement with an alibi tape of himself fishing, supposedly at the time of the murder — but expert testimony during trial cast doubt on the tape's validity. 

At the hearing, Dowling's attorney, public defender Tracy L. Ulstad, requested a new trial on grounds that false evidence was presented during trial. 

Judge Robert J. Eby did not make a ruling at the hearing and said he would consider the request. 

Executions in Pa.: Pennsylvania has only executed three inmates since 1995, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections; Gov. Tom Wolf also issued a moratorium on executions in 2015. 

Small had a listed execution date of Oct. 28, 2009, and Dowling had an execution set for Feb. 27, 2007. Both executions have since been stayed. Generally, executions can’t take place until a death row inmate has exhausted all post-conviction relief options.   

Both men are being held at the SCI Phoenix prison in Collegeville.