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Judge denies Tatar new trial

Renatta Signorini
| Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2009

A Parks Township man's bid for a new trial in the 2003 starvation death of his 4-year-old daughter was denied by an Armstrong County judge.

President Judge Kenneth Valasek denied numerous claims of ineffective assistance by counsel made by James Tatar, 46. Tatar is serving a life sentence for withholding food from his daughter, Kristen Tatar, resulting in the girl's death.

During three days of hearings in September, Tatar and his appeal counsel Jeffrey Miller alleged that Tatar's trial counsel, Joseph Caruso, provided ineffective assistance.

Tatar wrote in a post-conviction appeal that Caruso was not qualified to try a capital case under a rule that was enacted on Nov. 1, 2004, the day trial testimony began. Prosecutors had sought the death penalty against Tatar.

Valasek wrote in his opinion filed Thursday that the rule was not violated during Tatar's trial. Caruso was appointed about 15 months prior to the rule's effective date.

Caruso and Valasek agreed that the rule did not apply to Caruso when the issue was raised prior to trial, the judge noted in his opinion. A second attorney with expertise in death-penalty cases worked with Caruso during trial preparation.

"In the court's opinion, defendant had the benefit of highly-skilled, highly-motivated and extremely-zealous trial counsel," Valasek wrote. "Trial counsel fought very hard on defendant's behalf and did an excellent job."

Kristen Tatar's mother and James Tatar's girlfriend, Janet Crawford, testified during Tatar's trial that Tatar withheld food from the girl. Kristen Tatar was tied to a bed in the attic of their home for a week without food or water before she died, Crawford testified.

Crawford is serving a life sentence for her role in the girl's death.

Kristen's body was found wrapped in garbage bags inside a cooler on Aug. 7, 2003, near the couple's Kepple Hill home in Parks Township. Investigators testified that Kristen died about one month earlier.

Tatar testified at his trial that he last saw Kristen in May 2003 and believed she was in a home for children with behavioral problems.

Valaske also denied other claims alleged by Tatar of ineffective assistance by counsel.

Tatar had alleged Caruso failed to object to erroneous and prejudicial juror instructions and did not request certain instructions or explanations, both of which Tatar argued affected the trial's outcome.

Even if the ineffective assistance of counsel claims were meritorious, a new trial would still not be awarded because the evidence of Tatar's guilt was so strong, Valasek wrote.

Valasek also denied Tatar's claim that evidence discovered after the trial warranted a new trial.

Tatar claimed that the validity of documents provided by the Westmoreland County Children's Bureau affected a doctor's testimony during the trial. Evidence was presented during the September hearings that the documents were altered, and Tatar and his counsel argued that the doctor's opinion may change.

Tatar also alleged that more than 1,000 pages of notes handwritten by a caseworker were never reviewed by the doctor.

Valasek wrote in his opinion that some of the allegedly altered documents would not have any basis on a doctor's opinion or warrant a new trial.

"There is no reasonable probability that the after-discovered evidence would have made a difference in the outcome of the defendant's trial," Valasek wrote.

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