Attorney wants evidence tossed in Fayette slaying
The public defender for one of two men accused in a brutal Fayette County homicide wants the trial moved to another county and the suspect's statements to police eliminated as evidence.
In a series of motions filed on Wednesday, Jeffrey Whiteko challenged Pennsylvania's death penalty statute as unconstitutional and asked that homicide and other charges against Paul Jerome Bannasch be dismissed.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Bannasch, 24, of Uniontown and Craig Rugg, 24, of Connellsville in the June 22 slaying of Margaret “Peggy Sue” Kriek, 52.
Witnesses told police the three were drinking at Sidewinders bar in Connellsville shortly before they were seen near the Amtrak station in the city, according to a criminal complaint.
Police said the suspects beat Kriek near the station and dumped her body in the nearby Youghiogheny River, where it was discovered by Boy Scouts on June 22.
An autopsy report noted Kriek died of strangulation before her body was deposited in the river. She had blunt-force trauma injuries to her head and body, a rib fracture, a broken neck and lacerations and abrasions to her heels, legs, torso and arms, police said.
In the motions filed on Wednesday, Whiteko seeks to have the homicide charge dismissed for lack of evidence. He contends prosecutors have not proved that Bannasch had the intent to kill.
Whiteko wants Bannasch's statements suppressed because his client did not knowingly waive his Miranda rights, including the right against self-incrimination. Evidence that police collected should be tossed, according to Whiteko, because there was no probable cause for a search warrant.
If a trial is held, Whiteko contends, it should be moved out of Fayette County because news coverage of the case prevents Bannasch from receiving a fair trial.
“The defendant reasonably believes that as a result of the articles, newscasts, discussion of the parties, the familiarity of the parties to the community, etc., that the defendant will not receive a fair and impartial trial in Fayette County,” Whiteko wrote in one of the motions.
In the challenge to the state's death penalty statute, Whiteko said the statute should be declared unconstitutional because it violates prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment under the state and federal constitutions.
Should the case proceed with the death penalty still on the table, Whiteko wants a judge to ensure jurors understand the meaning of a sentence of life imprisonment. Otherwise, jurors will be “predisposed” to choose the death penalty.
“In the absence of information provided to the jury that a life sentence in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania is, in fact, a sentence of life without parole, the defendant believes, and therefore avers, that the jury will become predisposed to a sentence of death as opposed to the potential of a life sentence which they erroneously believe results in less than lifetime imprisonment,” one motion said.
Whiteko is seeking hearings on the motions.
No hearing date has been set on a separate motion, filed last week, in which Whiteko wants Bannasch to undergo a competency exam.
Bannasch and Rugg are in the Fayette County Prison without bond.
No pretrial motions have been filed in Rugg's case. Rugg is to be formally arraigned on Oct. 15 before Judge Nancy Vernon.
Liz Zemba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or firstname.lastname@example.org.