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Blair County judge rejects Kenney appeal

| Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014, 11:09 p.m.

A Blair County judge has rejected an appeal from a convicted child killer who is serving a life sentence for the beating death of a 4-year-old girl in a case that led to changes in Pennsylvania's Child Protective Services law.

Judge Hirman Carpenter dismissed an appeal by Rowlanda Lea Kenney, 47, formerly of Altoona, under the Post Conviction Relief Act in the 1997 killing of Ashley Decker on March 24, 1997. The judge ruled Kenney's arguments lacked credibility and were filed too late.

Decker's death led to changes in the act that now requires child welfare officials to cooperate with law enforcement agencies.

The Post Conviction Relief Act allows defendants to win a new trial by arguing their defense attorneys were ineffective. It can be filed after other appeals have been exhausted.

Assistant District Attorney Jackie Atherton Bernard, who helped prosecute Kenney in 1998, said her appeal was “purely an attempt to manipulate the criminal justice system.”

Post-conviction appeals must be filed within a year after sentencing, but Kenney filed a decade later. Carpenter held a hearing on Kenney's petition and heard testimony before dismissing the case.

Ashley Decker had been living with her grandparents, Roy and Willoughby Adair of Westmoreland County, until 1994, when her father, Kenneth Decker, won custody. Ashley lived with her father and Kenney, his live-in girlfriend.

The grandparents reported their granddaughter was being physically abused. A Greensburg pediatrician, the late Dr. Pascal Spino, examined the child and supported that assessment.

A physician at Excela Health Westmoreland could find no evidence of child abuse, according to court records. A Greensburg police officer disputed that diagnosis, but the case was outside his jurisdiction.

Then-Greensburg Detective James Williams told Westmoreland County Children's Bureau caseworkers about Decker in the hope they would relay the information to Blair County.

A subsequent investigation into the handling of the case found that Westmoreland County caseworkers never informed their counterparts in Blair County, who failed to property investigate, according to court documents. Blair County had received two reports that the child was being abused but determined they were unfounded. The investigation raised questions about the way Blair County Children and Youth Services and the Westmoreland County Children's Bureau handled the case.

Kenney is serving her sentence for first-degree murder at the State Correctional Institution in Muncy. Kenneth Decker served 3 12 to 7 years for his manslaughter conviction.

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or rgazarik@tribweb.com.

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