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Man wants murder count dismissed

Rich Cholodofsky
| Saturday, May 12, 2012, 4:10 p.m.

The attorney for a Ligonier Township man accused of the torture and beating death of his 3-year-old stepson filed court papers Tuesday asking a judge to dismiss criminal charges because the case languished in the court system without action for more than two years.

It has been nearly five years since Steven M. Sistek, 27, was arrested and charged with criminal homicide for the May 28, 1998, death of Lonny Biedrycki. Authorities contend Sistek dragged the boy down a hallway of their mobile home, threw him into a bathtub and struck him, causing the toddler to hit his head on the tub. The child died from head injuries.

On the eve of trial in 1999, Westmoreland County prosecutors said they learned of new evidence against Sistek in which a jailhouse informant claimed Sistek told him he planned the killing.

As a result, prosecutors decided to seek the death penalty should they get a first-degree murder conviction against Sistek.

Pretrial appeals over the decision of Westmoreland County Judge John Blahovec to allow the death penalty prosecution as well as testimony from informants has delayed the trial since.

Now, defense attorney Brian Aston said the appeals dragged on too long and as a result violated Sistek's constitutional right to a speedy trial.

"(Sistek's) ... due process rights under both the United States and the Pennsylvania constitutions have been violated in that during the inexcusable delay between petitioner's arrest and trial the petitioner has suffered the loss of numerous witnesses due to their death and the faded memories of other witnesses will act to deny the petitioner a fair trial," Aston wrote in his motion.

At the heart of the delay is a two-year gap between the time the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled on the defense's pretrial appeal and the time the case was scheduled for trial.

The appeals court ruled Feb. 2, 2001, not to hear Sistek's appeal. It was not until last month, Feb. 10, 2003, that prosecutors and court officials learned of that ruling.

During those two years Sistek's case sat in limbo, with officials apparently believing no decision had been made by the appeals court.

It was not until an assistant district attorney went to Pittsburgh to inquire about the delay that the decision eventually turned up.

Last month the case was scheduled to begin in July.

But Aston said the two-year delay prevented him from taking another appeal of the pretrial issue to the state's Supreme Court, which further violated Sistek's due process rights.

District Attorney John Peck said prosecutors were not at fault for the delays and that they were fully attributable to the defense.

"A defendant has a right to a speedy trial. You don't have the right to a speedy appeal. There is no constitutional basis to this claim," Peck said.

Peck also blamed the appeals court for the delay.

The prosecution, over the course of two years, repeatedly inquired about the status of Sistek's appeal and repeatedly was told by clerks at the Superior Court that the case was still pending, Peck said.

Blahovec is expected to conduct a hearing on Sistek's motion, possibly next month.

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