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Fayette murderer seeks new trial

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Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

The attorney who represented a Fayette County woman at her 2004 homicide trial testified he did not bring up a then-pending investigation of renowned forensic pathologist Cyril H. Wecht because it would have risked undermining the defense strategy.

Debra Payne, 53, of Grindstone is serving a life sentence for the June 5, 2003, shooting death of her husband, Harold Payne, 56, who was found dead in his bedroom with a bullet wound near his right ear.

His left arm was under his head, his right hand was tucked under his body, and a blanket was pulled over him up to the elbow. The gun that killed him, a .38-caliber revolver, was on top of the blanket. At trial, defense attorney Sam Davis of Uniontown presented an expert witness who testified the shooting was a suicide. Wecht, who testified for prosecutors, testified it was a homicide.

A grand jury in Pittsburgh was investigating Wecht at the time of the trial. He was indicted in January 2006 for allegedly using his public office as Allegheny County medical examiner for private gain.

Wecht's 2008 trial ended in a hung jury, and federal prosecutors dismissed the remaining charges.

Payne appeared in court on Monday before Fayette County Judge Steve Leskinen with her appellate attorney, Thomas N. Farrell of Pittsburgh, for a hearing. Farrell argued Payne should be granted a new trial because Davis did not attempt to impeach Wecht in front of jurors by questioning him on the then-pending charges in federal court. Federal court records, however, indicate those charges were not filed until after Payne's trial.

On the witness stand on Monday, Davis testified he did not broach the pending charges because he believed it would have hurt the defense's case. He testified his defense expert based part of his opinion on Wecht's testimony.

“I wanted to support the theory it was possible it was a suicide,” Davis testified. “(Wecht) said it's possible. Then I had my own expert witness who said it's possible.”

Davis said the then-pending charges against Wecht had to do with “monies owed,” as opposed to opinions rendered.

Davis said Wecht's “celebrity” status, well-known ability to win over juries and the chance jurors would look unfavorably on any attempt to discredit the pathologist were other factors he considered.

“I was afraid it would turn the focus on him,” Davis testified. “And I was afraid the jury would think we're pulling out of the air issues that have nothing about the trial.”

Davis' co-counsel at trial, Melinda Dellarose, said Payne was asked only a few questions when she testified in her defense because she did not want to “open the door” for prosecutors to question her regarding a note and her statements to police.

Assistant District Attorney Anthony Iannamorelli said the note implicated Payne, and she told police in a statement that she could not remember whether she shot her husband.

Leskinen did not rule on the petition. Attorneys have up to 90 days to submit written arguments and other documents before Leskinen renders a decision.

Liz Zemba is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or lzemba@tribweb.com.

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