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Defense: Friendship led to death penalty pursuit in Fayette case

| Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014, 11:21 p.m.

An assistant district attorney told a Fayette County judge that the fact she was high school classmates with the sister of a homicide victim had no bearing on her boss's decision to seek the death penalty against the accused killer.

“This motion is the most disingenuous attempt to prejudice the commonwealth's case I've ever seen,” said Michelle Kelley, assistant district attorney, during an impromptu hearing on a defense motion to remove her office from the case.

In the motion, Public Defender Jeffrey Whiteko asked that the district attorney's office be barred from prosecuting the death-penalty case against Henry Clay Crawford.

Crawford is accused of homicide, burglary and aggravated assault in the Jan. 28, 2013, stabbing of Lisa Faye Tupta, 48. Police said Crawford forced his way into Tupta's home in the Holiday Mobile Home Park and stabbed her.

Tupta, 49, had a protection-from-abuse order against Crawford, but family members said the two were not in a relationship.

Police found Crawford, with a knife, hiding in the home. He underwent surgery at UPMC Presbyterian for stab wounds.

Whiteko on Thursday told President Judge John F. Wagner Jr. he believes that District Attorney Jack Heneks' decision to seek the death penalty was “clouded” by Kelley's former relationship with one of Tupta's sisters.

Kelley said she knew Tupta's sister, who was not identified during the hearing, in high school about 30 years ago. The two lost touch after graduation, she said.

“I have never been to her house. She has never been to my house,” Kelley said.

Whiteko said the decades-old relationship could still have played a factor in the death penalty decision and his alleged inability to get prosecutors to respond to his inquiries regarding the status of the case.

He said the alleged lack of communication prompted him to delay, for four months, having an expert examine Crawford to prepare mitigating circumstances to be presented, if needed, to a jury.

Should jurors convict him of first-degree murder, they will enter the penalty phase of the trial to hear evidence of aggravating and mitigating circumstances before deliberating on a death sentence or life imprisonment.

“I don't care if you haven't seen someone in 20 years,” Whiteko said. “When they come in, that makes it more difficult to say ‘no.'”

Kelley pointed out Heneks' decision to seek the death penalty is based on four issues — the abuse order, torture, Crawford's criminal record and the allegation that the killing was allegedly committed during the course of another felony.

Wagner did not issue a verbal order on Whiteko's motion but said he will likely grant a continuance in the case to allow Whiteko time to have the mitigation expert examine Crawford.

The case was scheduled to go to trial this month. Crawford is in the Fayette County Prison without bond.

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

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