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February 21, 2014

Judge tosses charges in courtroom attack

HOLLIDAYSBURG — A Blair County judge has essentially gutted the criminal case against a death row convict who in May sucker-punched a Cambria County attorney who was defending him.

In a ruling handed down this week, Blair County President Judge Jolene Kopriva dismissed three of the four aggravated assault charges filed against Andre Staton, including one – assault by a life prisoner – that carried a life sentence.

Kopriva’s decision was in response to an argument made by Altoona attorney Mark Zearfoss, who said Friday the decision was a significant victory for the defense.

“The judge found the commonwealth couldn’t prove intent to cause injury, substantial injury,” Zearfoss said.

Zearfoss was appointed by the court to defend Staton against the charges following the May 13 attack on Tim Burns.

The prosecution is being handled by the state attorney general’s office because Blair County District Attorney Richard Consiglio was in the courtroom and witnessed Staton’s attack on Burns.

State prosecutor Daniel Dye could not be reached for comment Friday.

Burns, of Ebensburg, who sustained a significant concussion as a result of the punch, refused to comment on Kopriva’s decision.

He has filed a civil suit against a wide range of Blair County officials and the sheriff’s deputies who were in the courtroom at the time.

Burns was in the courtroom defending Staton at the time of the attack as a court-appointed attorney, but Blair County rejected any claim for compensation sought for his injuries and lost income.

He had three stays in the hospital as a result of the concession. While he has resumed his practice on a part-time basis, he said recently that he continues to need medical treatment.

“The judge reviewed his medical records in private and he wasn’t in the hospital for a long time,” Zearfoss said.

In her order, Kopriva relied on a late 1970s appeals court decision that found that the injury has to be significant in order to sustain the bulk of the aggravated assault charges filed against Staton.

A definition of that significant injury must be brain damage, loss of a limb or some type of disfigurement, Zearfoss told The Tribune-Democrat.

“Concussion doesn’t meet the definition unde the law. It really has to impair the well-being of an individual.”

Staton, 50, a Baltimore native, was convicted in 2006 of the murder of his former girlfriend, Beverly Yohn.

He was in the courtroom on appeal issues with Burns at his side when Judge Elizabeth Doyle determined she would not recuse herself from the case and Staton could not represent himself.

He reacted against Burns, but the sheriff’s deputies immediately subdued him.

“He didn’t fight them,” Zearfoss said.

Testimony at a preliminary hearing was that Staton and Burns were seated at the defense table. Staton had his hands handcuffed in front of him and he appeared to be gathering his papers.

He lifted his arms and in baseball fashion smashed Burns in the face, knocking him back off his chair.

Consiglio testified at the hearing that the imprint of handcuffs was visible on Burns face following the slam.

Zearfoss said the case will proceed with the single aggravated assault charge. Staton is next scheduled to appear in court March 3, but a continuance will be sought until the April 7 term of criminal court, Zearfoss said.

 

Kathy Mellott is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/kathymellotttd.

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