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May 23, 2013

Inmate charged in attack

Defense attorney allegedly assaulted

JOHNSTOWN — A courtroom attack on a Cambria County defense attorney by a death-row inmate has resulted in a number of criminal charges.

State police have filed a criminal complaint against Andre Staton for the punch he landed to the face of Tim Burns last week while Burns was in a Blair County courtroom attempting to defend Staton.

Two of the charges are assault by a prisoner and assault by a life prisoner. If convicted, Staton could be sentenced to life in prison because Burns is considered a protected person in the capacity he was serving.

The rules change when there are assaults by a person serving life or on death row, said Blair County Deputy District Attorney Jackie Bernard.

Staton, 50, also is charged with aggravated assault, aggravated assault to intentionally cause injury and simple assault.

A date for a preliminary hearing in front of Hollidaysburg District Judge Paula Aigner had not been scheduled as of Thursday.

Burns, who operates a law practice from an office at 104 S. Center St., Ebensburg, was in Blair County on May 13 representing Staton in the post-sentence appeal process.

He had only recently been appointed to defend Staton, something Burns is qualified to do because of his state certification to represent death-penalty cases at the trial or appeal level.

Staton, a native of Baltimore and now an inmate at SCI-Greene, was convicted in 2006 of the 2004 murder Beverly Yohn of Altoona.

He was sentenced to death and has been going through the mandatory appeals process for all death- row inmates.

Staton and Burns were in the courtroom of Elizabeth Doyle when Burns agreed with Doyle that Staton should not be allowed to represent himself and the attack occurred.

According to the criminal complaint filed by Trooper Patrick Snyder, Burns and Staton were seated beside one another at the defense table when Staton stood up.

He “suddenly and violently swung his shackled hands across his body at Burns’ head, turning full force into Burns and striking him across the eyes and bridge of the nose,” Snyder wrote.

Burns later told police he remembers seeing something silver coming right at his face. Staton immediately was removed from the courtroom.

Burns told police he tried several times to stand up, but was unable to do so.

He was treated at a hospital and released, but continues to have problems, including nausea.

He has what has been described as a “full-blown concussion” and has been unable to return to his office for more than a week.

“I’m still Andre Staton’s attorney on paper,” Burns said.

The Blair court will have to appoint a replacement, and questions have been raised whether the county district attorney’s office can handle the prosecution of Staton in the alleged assault because of its involvement in the murder case.

 Bernard said Thursday she is aware of no reason why Staton’s prosecution on this latest round of changes cannot be handled within the county.

Meanwhile, a potential legal battle may be brewing on the civil side.

Burns is seeking help from Blair County because he is unable to practice law, and that help apparently is being resisted.

Blair Commissioner Chairman Thomas Tomassetti did not respond to a request from The Tribune-Democrat for comment.

But those close to the case said the view is that Burns, as a court-appointed attorney, is not a county employee.

Burns said he has already contacted an attorney and may be forced to pursue the matter.

“I was there (at the courthouse) in the employment of Blair County,” he said. “I don’t want to go to court with Blair County. I like working in Blair County.”

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