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December 5, 2012

Murderer seeks new trial

— Linda Fleming, now a Cambria County judge who normally presides at hearings, testified as a witnesss Wednesday in Federal District Court in Johnstown about helping to defend Kevin Siehl in his murder trial 20 years ago in county court.

Fleming was an assistant public defender who worked with David Weaver, then Cambria’s chief public defender, in representing Siehl, who was convicted in May 1992 of first-degree murder in the stabbing death of his 29-year-old estranged wife, Christine.

Her body was found July 14, 1991, in the bathtub at her apartment in the city’s Moxham section. She had been stabbed more than 20 times.

Siehl, 56, now serving a life sentence at the State Correctional Institution-Huntingdon, did not testify at his trial, but has maintained his innocence and presented alibi evidence by his father, a brother and a neighbor that he was elsewhere the night of the slaying. One of the prosecution’s most damaging pieces of evidence was a thumbprint – identified as Siehl’s – found on the showerhead in the bathroom.

He has waged a legal battle for years seeking to overturn his conviction and get a new trial, but was rebuffed until the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to the district court for an evidentiary hearing on the effectiveness of Weaver and Fleming in their representation.

That hearing, ordered in 2009, finally got under way Wednesday before U.S. District Magistrate Judge Keith Pesto.

The focus was on the defense expert, W. Stewart Bennett, a New York forensics expert whose expertise now has come into question, particularly on fingerprint and blood evidence.

Fleming recalled that Bennett had been recommended by another public defender who had used Bennett in an unrelated murder trial. Bennett had testified in other counties in Pennsylvania and other states as a forensics expert, she said.

“There were no red flags that Mr. Bennett was anything but qualified,” Fleming said.

The defense legal team wanted to use Bennett as an expert at trial, including his opinion that nobody could say with certainty when the thumbprint had been left on the showerhead, she said. The defense believed that would challenge the prosecution’s evidence because Siehl had told police that he had not made a habit of showering at her apartment, Fleming testified.

But then on March 23, 1991 – just a couple of months before trial, “he dropped a bomb on us – incriminating evidence of (Siehl having been) at the crime scene,” Fleming recalled.

Bennett said that he found on the soles of Siehl’s sneakers traces of blood and cat litter and pieces of broken mirror, “all suggesting that the sneakers were at the crime scene at or near the time of the murder,” she said.

Fleming said that she and Weaver were unable to find a way to limit Bennett’s testimony during the trial to prevent the damaging evidence from coming out during the prosecution’s questioning if he took the stand.

Asked why the defense attorneys had not questioned Bennett’s findings – which came after the sneakers had been examined at the state police crime lab – Fleming said, “We believed that our expert found something that the state police had missed.”

She testified that she was surprised when told by federal Public Defender Lisa Freeland that the prosecution had the sneakers retested during trial, with the lab reporting back only, “No formal report required.” That information had not been supplied by prosecutors,” Fleming said.

She also said that she and Weaver did not seek to have a second expert appointed who could be used at trial because the defense’s legal resources had been capped at $6,000 by Judge Gerard Long. She said that she doubted whether Long would have approved additional expenses.

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