Friday, 1 January 2010

Death-row inmate accepts plea deal, could be free soon

After spending 17 1/2 years in prison, Ernest Simmons, a death-row inmate who steadily maintained his innocence and was granted a new trial after revelations of prosecutorial misconduct, is expected to walk free this year.

Mr. Simmons, 52, was convicted of the 1992 murder of Anna Knaze, an 80-year-old woman who was found strangled and beaten in her Johnstown home. He once came within four days of his scheduled execution.

His retrial was scheduled to begin Jan. 25, but yesterday he pleaded no contest to third-degree murder. Cambria County Judge Timothy Creany resentenced him to five to 10 years in prison and a 10-year probationary term.

Because he has already served a longer sentence, Mr. Simmons will be credited with time served. The Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole will determine his release date.

"Depending on how fast the board operates, we're hopeful that he'll be out by the holidays next year," said Kenneth Sottile, one of Mr. Simmons' lawyers. "He's probably looking at six months."

Mr. Simmons was awarded a new trial in 2005, after substantial misconduct on the part of prosecutors and police was uncovered.

When police searched for a suspect in Ms. Knaze's murder, they had quickly honed in on Mr. Simmons, a Philadelphia native who in 1984 had admitted to attacking and robbing two elderly men.

But an investigation by student reporters at the Innocence Institute of Point Park University revealed that police and prosecutors had hidden evidence favorable to Mr. Simmons, such as hair tests that did not link him to the crime and tapes of secretly recorded phone conversations during which Mr. Simmons repeatedly declared his innocence to his girlfriend. During an interview with student reporters, the prosecution's key witness recanted her witness identification.

"It would have been an entirely different proceeding had we had all the information that was withheld," said Mr. Sottile, who was also Mr. Simmons' lawyer during his original trial.

When he was offered the plea bargain, Mr. Simmons believed the most practical thing to do was to end the protracted judicial process, said Mr. Sottile.

"Ernie's maintained his innocence adamantly since day one," he said. "Had they not permitted him to enter a plea of no contest, he wouldn't have pled."

Cambria County District Attorney Patrick Kiniry said the commonwealth agreed to the plea partly because of the difficulty of reassembling witnesses after a 17-year lapse.

"When this opportunity arose, we decided to put closure to the case, to end all the appeals," he said. "Hopefully this provides closure for the family [of Ms. Knaze] as well."

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