Law & Order
By David Loomis
INDIANA – A Jan. 15 hearing in the Indiana County courthouse reviewed sad local history in the 1978 homicide of 16-year-old Barbara Ellen Bruzda of Tunnelton. The judicial history dates to 1997, 19 years after her death, when a jury found Ronald Lee Weiss, of Shelocta, guilty of her murder.
Since then, appeals in the case have kept courts busy. One is the Indiana County Court of Common Pleas, where Judge Thomas M. Bianco presided over last month’s proceeding, 40 years after the crime was committed.
Weiss reminded Bianco that a federal judge in Pittsburgh struck down his conviction in August, citing misconduct by a state police trooper and a state-appointed prosecutor during his 1997 jury trial. To retry him on the same charge now, the question facing Bianco, would violate constitutional guarantees against double jeopardy — prosecution after acquittal — Weiss argued.
Judge Bianco is scheduled to receive written arguments by March 1 and to rule by early spring on the issue. But whatever he decides, U.S. District Court Judge Mark R. Hornak’s 2018 ruling in the Weiss case revealed what he called a “pattern” of cold-case homicide investigation and prosecution in Indiana County.
JUDGE HORNAK WAS SCATHING in his critique of the state trooper and the state prosecutor who gathered and presented evidence to the Indiana County jury that convicted Weiss in 1997. Most important, Hornak wrote, was the evidence that the trooper and the prosecutor withheld from the jury. It’s important for a couple of reasons:
— The Brady Rule. This rule governing evidence in criminal trials was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brady v. Maryland in 1963. The rule requires the government to turn over to defendants before trial all evidence that might exonerate them. This rule is familiar to viewers of the long-running TV drama “Law & Order.” Whenever Jack McCoy, the district attorney played by Sam Waterston, groused that the defense gets to see his hand but the prosecution doesn’t get to see the defense’s hand, it was a reference to the rule.
— The broken Brady Rule. In Weiss’ case, the state prosecutor and the state trooper broke the Brady rule, Judge Hornak wrote, by failing to disclose that they had made a deal with two jailhouse informants with lengthy criminal records to testify that Weiss had confessed to them behind bars. In exchange, the jailhouse informants received promises of early release and other considerations, which were promptly provided by the trooper and the prosecutor to the prisoners. Worse, when the prosecutor and the trooper were asked pointedly about the exculpatory evidence of the quid pro quo, they lied. To the trial judge. To the jury. Under oath. In open court. And their lies are documented.
The prosecution later argued that the quid pro quo would not have changed the outcome had it been revealed at trial. That argument persuaded the state Supreme Court when it heard Weiss’ appeal in 2013. But federal Judge Hornak scoffed.
“For eighteen years the Commonwealth believed that it did not have enough evidence to bring him to trial,” Hornak wrote. “That changed in 1997, by which time the Commonwealth had obtained the cooperation of two jailhouse informants.”
By mid-summer 1997, Weiss had been convicted and sentenced to death.
Thus, without the jailhouse snitches and the state’s quid pro quo for their dubious testimony about alleged confessions, the state would not have even charged Weiss, Hornak wrote. The state’s “cover up” and misconduct led Hornak to the probability that the Weiss jury would have reached a different verdict had the trial not been so tainted.
“In its prosecution of Weiss for a long-unsolved murder, the Commonwealth engaged in a pattern of prosecutorial misconduct that resulted in a fundamentally unfair trial,” Hornak wrote.
The judge concluded:
“When prosecutors do secret deals, suppress evidence of them, stand by silently when the witnesses they determine to be central to their case lie about those deals, and then cover their tracks with their own false statements in and to a trial court, all in a way that plainly impacts the course and outcome of the trial, both those charged with crimes and the public are deprived of the fair trial that our Constitution commands, and to which they are entitled under the law. And this is obviously even more the case when the state seeks, and a defendant is exposed to, the ultimate penalty that our legal system may exact in a capital case.”
More broadly, and more pointedly, particularly for the victim’s family, Judge Hornak added:
“But so too the citizens of the Commonwealth were denied the resolution of Ms. Bruzda’s murder that a fair trial can deliver for them. The constitutional errors here were manifest, fundamental and material, and wholly avoidable had the representatives of the Commonwealth told the truth.”
HORNAK’S RULING referred to a “pattern.” Indeed, it echoes the 1982 conviction and 2015 exoneration of Lewis James Fogle for the 1976 rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl in rural Green Township. The common elements are a cold homicide case, police and prosecutor malfeasance, jailhouse snitches, a guilty verdict by any means necessary, a wrongful conviction, decades in prison, and then, in Fogle’s case, exoneration by rediscovered DNA evidence.
Last summer, Fogle’s attorney predicted that his federal civil lawsuit against state police investigators and county prosecutors will bring to the stand members of the county’s judiciary, among others involved in his prosecution.
Indiana County Judge Bianco’s ruling next month could be a factor in whether Weiss follows in Fogle’s footsteps.
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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