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October 4, 2012

Suspect decides on nonjury trial

EBENSBURG — A Johnstown man accused of sexually abusing a 5-year-old girl decided Thursday minutes before a jury was to be selected to hear his case that he wants a nonjury trial before a county judge.

Lee Kearns, 23, of the 800 block of Central Avenue, is accused of sexually assaulting the girl twice in the spring of 2011 at a home in Stonycreek Township.

The charges include two counts of rape of a child.

The trial opens Wednesday before Judge Norman Krumenacker. If convicted, Kearns would face two mandatory 10-to-20 year sentences in state prison, Assistant District Attorney Tamara Bernstein said.

Defense attorney John Kasaback contended that his client has mental issues and was not legally competent to stand trial. However, a psychiatrist has determined that Kearns is able to assist in his own defense and is able to understand the proceedings, Judge Timothy Creany said.

Creany, after reviewing with Kearns his right to a jury trial, granted the request for a nonjury trial.

It was disclosed that the defendant had rejected a plea offer in which prosecutors recommended a 10- to 20-year sentence.

In an unrelated case, a Johnstown woman accused of setting fire to her house got a last-minute delay in her arson trial after telling Creany she wants to hire a Philadelphia attorney to represent her instead of county public defenders.

Juanita McNeil, 47, is accused of setting fire to her house in the 700 block of Menoher Boulevard in Johnstown’s Kernville neighborhood the night of Aug. 7-8.

McNeil told the judge that she and her family will be able to pay for a private attorney. Creany warned McNeil that she and her new attorney, Kevin Birley, have to be ready to pick a jury Dec. 6.

She said that she wants to present an alibi defense, although a legal notice has not been filed in the case.

At the time of her arrest in August, she told police that she had been in New Jersey at the time of the fire. But police alleged that McNeil told an inmate at the county prison that she set fire to collect insurance.

Assistant District Attorney Beth Penna is prosecuting the case. Creany allowed Public Defender Mike Filia to withdraw as McNeil’s attorney.

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