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Decision expected on seizure of Greensburg woman's computers

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Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

A decision could be announced on Wednesday on an emergency request to halt West Virginia police from taking custody of a Greensburg woman's computers they suspect contains evidence in a murder investigation.

Police were given access to the computers when Senior Judge Daniel Howsare of Bedford County ruled investigators had sufficient probable cause to take the equipment in September. They were seized by Pennsylvania State Police, but have not been examined by West Virginia investigators.

Ruth Tatka, 59, who works as the legal secretary for Westmoreland County Judge John Blahovec, has challenged whether police have the right to seize her home computers.

She said on Tuesday she would appeal Howsare's ruling.

Howsare was asked on Tuesday to grant a temporary stay of his order to allow Tatka to file an appeal. A decision on the stay is pending.

Tatka's nephew and his wife were arrested in June by West Virginia police and are being held in jail as they await trial on murder charges.

Sheriff's deputies in Marion County, W.Va., contend Michael Palmer, 32, and Kristyn Palmer, 30, plotted to kill 62-year-old Earl “Eddie” Wilson on Dec. 11, when he was fatally shot with an AK-47 assault rifle.

Tatka said her nephew is innocent because he acted to protect his life.

West Virginia investigators contend that Michael Palmer, while he was in jail, asked his aunt to rewrite letters and forward the correspondence to his wife, according to court documents filed with the search warrant executed on Sept. 20.

Pennsylvania State Police seized three computers and 33 handwritten letters and envelopes from Tatka's home.

At a hearing before Howsare last month, Tatka testified that she never rewrote any letters for her nephew.

“We believe that Marion County authorities have sufficient information to reasonably conclude that information relevant to their homicide case may be present in the computers and should have an opportunity to examine them to determine whether that is in fact the case,” Howsare ruled. “We would note that it is not uncommon in criminal prosecutions to have items seized with the belief that incriminating evidence is present, but with the need to make a more definitive determination ... .”

Tatka has contended that the West Virginia prosecution is flawed. She has criticized Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck for not protecting her constitutional rights against an illegal search and seizure.

“We did offer West Virginia police an opportunity to look at the hard drives here in Pennsylvania, and they denied that,” Tatka said. Tatka's case has had ramifications on Westmoreland County's criminal court system.

Blahovec has recused himself from hearing cases in which Peck and Tatka's lawyer, Emily Smarto, are involved.

Peck is prosecuting a triple homicide in which the defendant could face the death penalty. The case was transferred to another judge after Blahovec's recusal.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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