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Court: Dry-cleaning bag OK as evidence in Long case

| Monday, May 14, 2012, 7:22 a.m.

A dry-cleaning bag that police claim Dr. Karl Long used to suffocate his wife can be shown to a jury after an appeals court ruled that a judge erred when excluding it from evidence.

In an opinion filed Thursday the state's Superior Court ruled that Westmoreland County Judge William J. Ober misinterpreted the rules regulating police obtaining search warrants when he said a police officer couldn't swear to an affidavit over a videoconference telephone call.

'I'm very grateful for the Superior Court's decision,' District Attorney John Peck said last night. Defense attorney William McCabe could not be reached for comment.

Long, 42, of Ligonier, was charged with criminal homicide in connection with the Oct. 3, 1999, suffocation death of his wife, Elaine Long, in their home. Police were called to the home in response to a domestic disturbance to find the two lying on their bed. Elaine Long was dead and had a dry-cleaning bag over her head, and Karl Long had a stab wound to his chest.

Long told police he acted in self-defense to fend off an attack by his knife-wielding wife. Police claim Long suffocated his wife with the bag and stabbed himself, creating a shallow wound.

Police say they found Long's fingerprints on the dry-cleaning bag.

During the initial investigation, Ligonier police Officer Robert E. Derk requested permission from a district justice to search the Long residence.

Derk faxed an affidavit of probable cause to District Justice Joseph Dalfonso in Night Court at the county prison and swore to its contents in a videoconference. During a hearing, Dalfonso testified he recognized Derk as a police officer.

Ober ruled that evidence collected in the search had to be excluded from trial because the rules required the police officer to be in the physical presence of the district justice to take the oath.

'The administration of an oath and the swearing before a judicial authority are acts at the very foundation of jurisprudence. These are not a matter of ceremony or mere formality for which a substitute procedure will suffice,' Ober wrote in suppressing the evidence.

Judge Richard Joseph Del Sole, writing for the panel of three Superior Court judges, disagreed.

'The rule itself makes no mention that the affidavit must be sworn to in the physical presence of the (district justice) and we decline to read this requirement into the rules,' it read in part.

'It must be acknowledged that we live in an age of technology ... It is likely that the procedure for taking an oath and swearing to affidavits over the phone for purposes of obtaining search warrants will become more and more commonplace,' Del Sole wrote.

Shortly after the prosecutors took their appeal to Superior Court, Ober released Long on a $200,000 property bond after he spent a year in jail. He treats patients at his Greensburg podiatry office and lives under house arrest with his parents. He periodically sees his two young children.

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