Decision expected on seizure of Greensburg woman's computers
By Rich Cholodofsky
Published: Wednesday, November 14, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Updated: Wednesday, November 14, 2012
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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Lol wouldn't surprise me! Its scary that these men and women, like John Peck, have dedicated their lives to the study of our legal system and are supposed to have the law abiding citizens best interests in mind. How is Peck and Judge Howsare able to get away with this breach of our constitutional rights? I hope Ms. Tatka can get her computers back..
Submitted by: bryan on Wednesday, November 14, 2012
the question is whether the investigators in WV will be able to turn on a computer?
Submitted by: Ron on Wednesday, November 14, 2012
So hand writing letters to a family member in jail is probable cause that you may have evidence on your computer that is crucial to the case? Am I reading this correctly, hand written? Why is this woman's computer being taken from her if the letters were hand written? Shows the intelligence of the men and women working for the West Virginian government. Looks like we are one step closer to a government that can enter our homes and take whatever they want. WAKE UP PEOPLE