Pa. Superior Court rejects murder appeal
PITTSBURGH — The Pennsylvania Superior Court has rejected an appeal by Shaun Fairman and upheld the second-degree murder conviction handed down by an Indiana County jury for the shooting death of his father-in-law almost two years ago.
Fairman, 34, is serving a life sentence for fatally shooting Richard Shotts, 55, of Rural Valley, on June 3, 2012, at the home of his estranged wife near Trade City in North Mahoning Township.
Prosecutors charged that Fairman, after receiving divorce papers in the mail the previous day, armed himself with a .45-caliber revolver and a .30-06 rifle and set out to confront Jessica Fairman at their family home along Route 210. Fearing that Shaun Fairman would come to the house and cause trouble, Jessica Fairman’s parents planned to stay there with her that night.
According to state police, Fairman arrived at the house just after midnight and Shotts refused to let him in the house. Fairman, who remained outside on the porch, fired his gun through the window and mortally wounded Shotts, who was arguing with him from the kitchen.
Fairman then entered the house in search of his wife, who shot and wounded him as he entered a second-floor bedroom and held him at bay until state police arrived.
A jury convicted Fairman on April 25 of second-degree murder, burglary and two counts of aggravated assault, and Judge William Martin sentenced him May 28 to serve life in prison without parole.
In a post-sentence appeal filed by the Indiana County public defender’s office, Fairman argued that his lawyers, Robert Dougherty and Donald McKee, and the district attorney’s office had reached a plea bargain more than two weeks before his case went to trial, and that Martin should have required prosecutors to abide by the deal.
Fairman also gave two reasons that Martin should have declared a mistrial, but Martin ruled in September that the trial had been conducted fairly and denied the appeal.
After considering briefs filed by the attorneys last fall, Superior Court Judges Mary Jane Bowes, Cheryl Lynn Allen and John L. Musmanno on Friday affirmed Martin’s decisions.
In their published opinion, the judges reported that the reached the plea bargain April 3 and that Shotts’ widow, Candace Shotts, decided April 4 not to approve the deal and told the district attorney to take the case to trial. The judges agreed with Martin’s ruling that a plea bargain cannot be enforced until the sides agree to it and a judge approves it in an open court hearing, but that Fairman’s deal did not make it that far.
“Only a short period of time had elapsed between acceptance and rejection (of the agreement),” Martin wrote in his ruling. “Defense counsel took no action in reliance on the plea agreement; the court had not accepted the plea agreement. In cases such as this the victim must be permitted the deference to make a timely withdrawal of consent.”
Details of the agreement aren’t shown in the court rulings.
The Superior Court judges also agreed with Martin’s reasoning in rejecting the requests for a mistrial.
Fairman said the prosecutors at the trial, while displaying crime scene photos on a large screen in the courtroom, inadvertently displayed a photo showing Shotts’ body on the kitchen floor. Martin said the photo was shown very briefly and already was among many that had been admitted as evidence for the jury to see.
At the trial, Martin instructed the jury against being influenced by the unexpected view of the photo, and wrote in response to Fairman’s appeal that the incident did not warrant a mistrial.
Fairman also suggested the jury could have been biased against him because a witness testified that Fairman knew the location of the Indiana County Jail.
A state police officer from Punxsutawney said that after Fairman was arrested, charged and transported to jail, the officer only had general directions to the lockup and that Fairman was able to tell him where to turn to reach the jail.
While Fairman said the comment could make jurors believe he had a criminal record, Martin noted that the jury was specifically told during the trial that Fairman had no such record.
“Upon review of the record and mindful of our standard of review, we find no abuse of discretion by the trial court and incorporate its opinion as our own,” the Superior Court judges concluded.