Jurors in triple-murder trial to visit Loyalhanna Township site of slayings
At some point in the next month, a Westmoreland County jury will board a bus for a 30-minute drive to Loyalhanna Township to see the location where three members of a local family were gunned down four years ago.
The unusual viewing will be part of the defense case in the capital murder trial of Kevin Murphy, who is charged with three counts of first-degree homicide.
Jury selection in the trial will start on Monday morning.
Murphy, 52, of Conemaugh Township, Indiana County, is charged with shooting his mother, Doris, 61, three times; his sister Kris L. Murphy, 43, two times; and his aunt Edith Tietge, 81, one time.
The bodies of all three women were found April 23, 2009, in the garage at the family-owned repair shop, Ferguson Glass in Loyalhanna.
The prosecution contends Murphy killed the three women because they disapproved of his relationship with a married woman, who told him to “knock off” his family, according to testimony at a preliminary hearing.
Defense attorneys Bob Bell and Mark Bolkovac want jurors to see for themselves the location where the bodies were discovered.
“It will give the jury an opportunity to see the crime scene,” Bell said last week.
He and Bolkovac declined to discuss how they expect the viewing will help their case, which is expected to suggest that someone other than Murphy is the killer.
Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck, who is prosecuting, did not object to the viewing.
Duquesne University School of Law professor Wes Oliver said the jury field trip is unusual, especially for capital murder trials.
“I've just never heard of it in criminal cases outside of a ‘Matlock' TV show. It's the stuff of TV and not real criminal cases,” Oliver said. “There are things that you can't control, an environment that might be prejudicial that the court hasn't seen ahead of time.”
He suggested security might also be an issue. In addition to jurors, the judge, lawyers and other court staff will make the trip. Murphy, now in jail, also might make the trip.
“Security of the defendant is also a concern. There are incredible security concerns when you have someone facing execution going out on a field trip,” Oliver said.
Court Administrator Paul Kuntz said jury viewings are rare in Westmoreland County. When they have occurred, he said, they typically have been part of civil trials.
“I don't remember the last time we did it in a criminal case,” Kuntz said.
Cost estimates for the trip have not yet been determined, he said.
Judge Al Bell has said the trip will occur during defense arguments.
The trial is expected to last about four weeks, should a penalty phase be needed to determine sentencing.
The prosecution has said it will ask jurors to condemn Murphy to death if he is convicted of first-degree murder.
The same jury that hears evidence in the guilt phase of the trial will weigh evidence as to whether Murphy should be given the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.