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Former Speaker DeWeese expected to remain in prison

| Friday, May 24, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

HARRISBURG — Former House Speaker Bill DeWeese likely will serve out the remainder of his prison term, because his appeals could drag on well beyond the end of his sentence, legal experts say.

There is an outside chance that DeWeese, 63, of Waynesburg would have a shot at freedom if he wins an appeal to a three-judge panel of Superior Court for a new trial on his 2012 theft conviction for using public resources for campaigns.

The longtime Greene County Democrat used his district office staff for campaigns, witnesses told jurors, and admitted that a state-paid aide sat just outside his Harrisburg office raising campaign money.

If he wins the right to a new trial — and if authorities decide not to retry him — he might have an opportunity to again run for office.

That's the best-case scenario. But law school professors say the prospect of winning such an appeal is unlikely.

“A big if,” said University of Pittsburgh professor John Burkoff, a legal expert.

“Whatever happens from this point on, there's every chance that DeWeese will have served all or most of his sentence by the time this is all over and done with,” Burkoff said.

DeWeese has served 13 months of a 2 12- to 5-year sentence in Retreat state prison. He needs to serve at least nine more months before becoming eligible for early release. His attorney, William Costopoulos, declined comment.

“If the Superior Court reverses his conviction — and that's a big if — the state is bound to appeal that reversal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court,” Burkoff said. “And that is generally not a lightning-quick process, to put it mildly. Less quick still if the Supreme Court actually agrees to hear the case. … As a result, it seems to me rather unlikely that, whatever happens on appeal, there will ever be a retrial in this case.”

The Attorney General's Office declined comment.

Wes Oliver, a Duquesne University Law School professor, said criminal appeals “are rarely successful. Without knowing the issues raised, I can't speculate on the odds of reversal in this case, but about 5 percent of criminal defendants receive some sort of relief in an appellate court.”

Most convicted defendants are not released on bail while an appeal is pending, Burkoff said.

“But certainly if the Superior Court reverses, Costopoulos can ask the trial court to release him on bail, pending action by the Supreme Court. And the trial court has the discretion to do that,” he said, but added that would not be the norm.

If DeWeese were retried and again convicted, “the person obviously gets credit for time served,” said Tom Place, who teaches criminal law at Penn State University's Dickinson Law School.

Only in rare circumstances could a new, longer sentence be imposed, Place said.

Another rare circumstance: An appeals court could declare the verdict “insufficient as a matter of law” and grant essentially an acquittal. Typically, verdicts are reversed because of trial error, Place said.

Yet there is some benefit to winning an appeal after serving one's sentence, Oliver said.

“You might think that the appellate court would say that the issue is moot, but courts have held that the collateral consequences of conviction — (such as) disenfranchisement, removal of right to own a gun, limits on international travel — permit the appellate court to reverse a conviction even if the defendant has served all his time.”

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter.Reach him at 717-787-1405or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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