More twists ahead in 2014 Johnstown homicide case
JOHNSTOWN — After one of the three men accused of killing Tony Phillips in 2014 agreed to testify against the other two this week, defense attorneys and prosecutors are looking forward to a much-delayed trial, even though legal machinations after the trial could change everything.
Jeremy Woodard, accused of driving Joshua Cambric to the location where he's accused of killing Phillips more than three years ago, agreed to a plea deal in exchange for testifying against Cambric and Keith Reed, another man charged in the case.
Reed's attorney, Tim Burns, said the run-up to these trials, which will have lasted nearly four years by the time they start, is not normal.
"The (Cambria County) District Attorney's Office took an appeal approximately two years ago that delayed the process," Burns said in an interview with 6 News.
That appeal was over whether Woodard, Reed and Cambric should be tried together or separately.
Prosecutors wanted the three to be tried together. Assistant District Attorney Jessica Aurandt told 6 News that there was important evidence that they could only present if all three were in one trial, instead of three.
But a judge ruled against them, severing the one trial into three. Aurandt said the DA's office appealed that decision, a fight they would eventually lose, because of how critical the evidence was.
"We felt it was absolutely critical that we tell the jury the entire story," Aurandt told 6 News.
But that appeal would invite what are called "Rule 600" challenges.
Among other things, Rule 600 starts a year-long countdown to trial the moment criminal charges are filed.
A defendant's trial, according to that rule, has to happen before that year-long countdown wraps up.
Where it gets complicated, though, is when a trial gets delayed for an arguably legitimate reason, like an appeal.
Aurandt and other attorneys have said there is a certain amount of confusion in the way Rule 600 is applied.
The courts, Aurandt said, haven't made clear which appeals stop the countdown and which don't. For instance, one could interpret the law to mean that any time used for a commonwealth appeal that ends up losing should be added to the countdown.
That interpretation would complicate the way prosecutors prepare for trials.
"We would lose our cases anytime we filed an appeal," Aurandt said. "There has to be a middle ground there."
In general, Aurandt argued, if the commonwealth is appealing something in good faith — meaning they think there is a real argument, and they're not just trying to delay the trial — they should be allowed to do that without it counting against the year-long deadline.
In this case, the appeals stemmed from the decision to split the trial into three different ones, which prosecutors appealed.
Burns and others attorneys on the case argued months ago that their clients' charges should be dropped because the commonwealth shouldn't have made the appeal that delayed the case.
And, if a judge agreed that the commonwealth shouldn't have made that appeal, the year-long deadline may have been passed by far, giving a judge the option to dismiss the charges.
A superior court judge denied the defense attorneys' motion to dismiss the cases under Rule 600; but didn't answer the question about which appeals count and which don't, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
All that being said and done, and after that plea deal, Reed and Cambric are scheduled to finally go to trial early next year, which is what prosecutors and defense attorneys are focusing on now.
If Reed and Cambric are convicted, defense attorneys could again ask a judge to dismiss any jail sentence because of Rule 600.
It's not clear how a judge would rule on that petition after a trial, although prosecutors and defense attorneys say they both think they have good arguments if that comes up.
For now, though, they're focused exclusively on the trial itself.
Burns stressed that, while his client is accused of a serious crime, he has a right to a speedy trial just like anyone else.
"It's a fundamental right in our Constitution," Burns said. "In other countries, you could get picked up and sit in jail for years and never have a charge brought against you. That's what separates the United State from other countries."
Aurandt added the job of weighing someone's liberty is not one the District Attorney's office takes lightly.
"We also have a life that's been lost, and it's up to us to decide if this evidence is very important... so that we can ultimately hold someone accountable for the life that was lost," Aurandt said.