Ross debate turns contentious

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva began wrestling Monday afternoon with the hotly contested issue over whether Paul Aaron Ross will face the death penalty in his retrial for the murder of a Hollidaysburg woman a decade ago.

Ross’ death penalty attorney, Thomas Hooper, said the jury that heard the Ross case in 2005 returned a “verdict” of life, which, he said, would prohibit the prosecution from seeking death on a retrial.

But Blair County District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio said the jury returned no such verdict and was at an “impasse” on the death penalty when deliberations came to an end.

If that is the case then, Consiglio argued strenuously, the death penalty can be put back on the table for the retrial.

The argument at times was heated with Ross’ trial attorney, Thomas M. Dickey, also contesting the possibility of exposing Ross to the death penalty once again.

Dickey particularly opposed a Consiglio proposal to put two jurors from 2005 on the witness stand to relate what occurred in the jury room.

Those two jurors sat in the courtroom awaiting to be placed on the witnesses stand.

“I object coming in seven-eight (actually nine) years later to say what went on the in jury room,” said Dickey.

Hooper was even more emphatic, stating, “I see this as a dangerous policy, entering the inner sanctum of the jury room.”

The judge admitted the proposal by Consiglio to place jurors on the witness stand to aid in her resolution of the death penalty issue caught her off guard.

At the end of the argument, she decided to take a look at the situation and decide if she needs testimony to resolve the argument.

Consiglio said the jury ended its attempt to resolve the death penalty question in 2005 with the jurors at 10-2 in favor of death, which he said, showed the jury never returned a “verdict” of life.

Dickey said he wants Consiglio not just to verbally request testimony by the jurors but to file a formal petition so he can answer it.

“My objection is the procedure. … You just can’t come in here and ‘wing it,'” Dickey said.

Kopriva, eager to make a decision on the death penalty question, told Dickey to submit case law by 2 p.m. today.

Ross, 41, is serving life behind bars for the June 26, 2004, murder of Tina S. Miller, whose body was found at Canoe Creek State Park.

The two met at a Hollidaysburg pub and ended up at an after-hours party. She and Ross were last seen together at Canoe Creek, according to testimony in the first trial.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court ordered a retrial because of Dickey’s complaints that he didn’t have enough time to prepare his defense and because testimony from three former girlfriends of Ross was deemed inappropriate.

Kopriva is attempting to keep the case on track for a retrial in October.

After the case was sent back to Blair County for retrial, Consiglio filed notice that he intended to seek the death penalty.

The defense in reviewing the case says the issue was decided and it cites the message the jury sent to the judge, stating, “Your honor, the jury has been at an impasse and cannot reach a unanimous verdict. The verdict is life.”

The defense has seized on the final sentence, “The verdict is life,” to argue that the court cannot “speculate.”

“It is a compromise verdict. It is a verdict of a life sentence. It may be a compromise, but it is a verdict,” said Hooper.

Consiglio said it’s clear what the jury meant – it was at an impasse.

“Read the transcript. Read the verdict slip. Look at it,” Consiglio said.

There was a place on the verdict slip to mark “death” or “life.” There was no check on either box, he said.

Under the law, an impasse automatically results in a life sentence imposed by the trial judge, the Blair DA said.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.