Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Court rejects double murder appeal

on April 14, 2013 1:30 AM

SUNBURY (AP) — A defense attorney is vowing to appeal a divided Superior Court panel’s decision upholding his client’s conviction in a central Pennsylvania double murder five years ago.

The panel split 2-1 in rejecting the appeal of Michael Harrell, 44, of Sunbury, who is serving a life without parole sentence, according to The (Sunbury) Daily Item.

A Northumberland County judge convicted him of first-degree murder in the January 2008 shooting deaths of Crystal Scholl-Gordon, 24, and David Moore, 25, in Sunbury.

Defense attorneys had sought to introduce testimony during trial about the phenomenon of false confessions and the possible role of police interrogation tactics. The defense argued that Harrell’s confession to police interrogators had been coerced after hours of sleep and food deprivation.

Two Superior Court judges upheld the judge’s decision not to allow the testimony on the grounds that most people could judge the veracity of a confession.

But Judge Christine Donohue argued in a dissenting opinion that most people believe that police elicit confessions only from the guilty. She said the commonwealth’s argument that potential jurors have “broad experience” distinguishing false confessions as a result of crime movies and television shows was a “highly dubious, if not preposterous assumption.”

Donohue called the judge’s decision to exclude the testimony “a clear abuse of discretion.”

She also disagreed with the ruling of the other judges that police weren’t required to record the interview. Six states, not including Pennsylvania, require such recordings.

Defense attorney Edward Rymsza told the newspaper on Friday that he was pleased with the split decision and would appeal to the state Supreme Court.

He said false confessions and mandatory recording of police interrogations are “very important and compelling issues” that should be addressed by the courts or state lawmakers.

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