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Blahovec recuses himself from the murder case over dispute with DA

Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Kevin Murphy sits in a Westmoreland County Sheriff's vehicle at the Westmoreland County Courthouse after a hearing on April 30, 2012.

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Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
 

Jurors will be able to hear key evidence linking an Indiana County man to the murders of his mother, sister and aunt more than three years ago.

But the capital murder trial of Kevin Murphy, 51, of Conemaugh Township, remains in limbo as the presiding Westmoreland County judge said Tuesday he recused himself from the case after a dispute with District Attorney John Peck over his handling of an unrelated case involving a courthouse employee.

Judge John E. Blahovec said his last act on the case was to deny a series of pretrial motions in which Murphy's defense lawyers attempted to have blood, DNA and gunshot residue evidence barred from the trial.

Prosecutors contend Murphy shot his mother, sister and aunt on April 23, 2009. His mother, Doris Murphy, 69; his sister, Kris L. Murphy, 43; and his aunt, Edith C. Tietge, 81, were killed in the garage of Ferguson Auto Repair.

All were shot in the head with a .22-caliber weapon. Doris Murphy was shot three times. Her daughter was shot twice. Tietge died from one bullet wound.

The prosecution has suggested that Murphy killed the three women because they disapproved of his relationship with a married woman, who told him to “knock off” his family, according to testimony during a preliminary hearing. The woman has not been charged.

Peck said he will seek the death penalty against Murphy if he is convicted of the killings.

During pretrial hearings, defense lawyers Mark Bolkovac and Robert Bell suggested police illegally obtained statements from Murphy when he was hospitalized hours after the bodies were discovered.

While at the hospital, Murphy was given drugs, and during that time he agreed to speak with police and consented to be tested for gunshot residue.

Blahovec ruled Murphy voluntarily spoke with police and consented to the test. The judge also determined there was ample grounds to search Murphy's garage for the murder weapon.

“The defendant had taken a handgun to the store and hid the handgun in the store. Only the defendant and the victims knew where the handgun was hidden. A handgun was found at the scene along with DNA and trace evidence,” Blahovec wrote in upholding a search warrant.

Murphy, who has been in jail since his arrest on the one-year anniversary of the killings, has maintained his innocence.

His trial is tentatively scheduled to begin in December, but as of Tuesday it was unclear which judge would preside over the case and if it would be rescheduled.

Blahovec said he would not hear the Murphy case along with any other case tried by Peck. Blahovec also recused himself from cases handled by defense attorney Emily Smarto, who is not part of the Murphy trial.

Peck last week represented West Virginia police, who are attempting to search computers seized at the Greensburg home of Blahovec's secretary, Ruth Tatka. Tatka's nephew is awaiting trial in Marion County, W.Va., on charges that he killed his father-in-law.

West Virginia police in court documents suggested Tatka may have helped her nephew have contact with his wife, another defendant in the murder.

Tatka, who was represented by Smarto, went to court last week seeking to have her computers returned to her before they can be searched.

A senior visiting judge from Bedford County is expected to decide that issue later this month.

Blahovec said that until Tatka's case is resolved he cannot hear cases involving Peck and Smarto.

“I just want to avoid the appearance of impropriety,” Blahovec said. “I understand the Murphy case will be moved.”

Peck did not object to Blahovec's recusal.

“I have great respect for Judge Blahovec as a judge and as a person. This is his decision. He feels conflicted and I respect his decision,” Peck said.

Defense attorney Mark Bolkovac could not be reached for comment.

Court Administrator Paul Kuntz said the Murphy case, and any others affected by the recusal, have not yet been reassigned to another criminal court judge.

Kuntz said no court orders requiring him to do so have been signed.

“Until somebody tells me otherwise, it's still Judge Blahovec's,” Kuntz said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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