Sunday, 10 January 2010

Death row inmate might be innocent

Star witness admits she lied

November 2004
By Nathan Crabbe and Jamie Keaney

He seemed like a logical suspect. After all, Ernest Simmons had spent most of his adult life behind bars and his last prison stretch was for beating and robbing two elderly men.

So in May 1992, when 80-year-old Anna Knaze was found robbed and brutally murdered in her Johnstown home, suspicion quickly focused on Simmons. In short order, he was arrested, convicted and condemned to death row, where he has narrowly escaped execution twice.

In the past, Simmons had always pleaded guilty to his crimes, but this time, he swore he was innocent - even when he was being secretly taped by his girlfriend.

An investigation by the Innocence Institute of Western Pennsylvania at Point Park University and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shows he may be right. At the very least, the jury that convicted him lacked key evidence and information challenging witnesses' stories.

The jurors didn't know police withheld hair tests that didn't match Simmons. They never heard the secret tape recordings made by his girlfriend, which were hidden by police. They didn't know that two witnesses against him escaped time behind bars in return for their testimony. Most significantly, the jury didn't know the state's star witness lied on the stand when she identified Simmons as the killer--a falsehood she admitted just months ago to reporters from the Innocence Institute.

A federal judge heard arguments Jan. 30 on whether Simmons, now 46, deserves a new trial or certain death. Police and prosecutors maintain a steadfast resolve they have the right man and any errors made were harmless. In fact, they have intimated he got away with other murders before meeting his match in the aggressive detective who investigated Knaze's killing.

Simmons acknowledges he was a longtime thief but insists he is no killer.

"Merely because I was black and had previous convictions was I accused of a murder that had nothing to do with me," Simmons wrote from the section of SCI Greene that houses most of the state's death row inmates. "I, like most people, am not perfect, but I did not kill this elderly woman."

A frightened public

In the early 1990s, Johnstown was still recoiling from the collapse of the steel industry, which helped fuel a 21-year-peak in the city's crime rate. By 1992, the local newspaper had declared a crime wave was underway and residents were applying for new gun permits at a record pace.

After four residents older than 70 were attacked in February and March, the city's graying population was warned to be on alert. But Anna Knaze wasn't fazed. Her son would later recall she was a friendly old woman who didn't hesitate to help a stranger.

Knaze lived in one of a handful of aging residences on the road connecting downtown to the abandoned steel mills. When neighbors didn't see her for a day and her mail was untouched, they contacted her son.

He found her body slumped on a hallway floor in the late afternoon of May 6, 1992, and suspected she died from a fall or natural causes. But an autopsy uncovered the horrors of her final minutes.

Her spine was severed, all her ribs broken and she was strangled more than a day before she was found. Her purse, the only item missing from the home, would never be recovered.

An aggressive detective

The detective assigned to the case, Sgt. Richard Rok, grew up in Johnstown and always aspired to wear a badge. A graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania and former juvenile probation officer, Rok started as patrolman in 1989 and in two years worked his way to detective.

Rok was known for busting drug dealers and breaking other high profile cases in a 13-year career that saw him rise to lead detective and department spokesman.

But he was also accused of abusing his authority, allegedly telling one black resident he didn't "need a warrant for niggers." Johnstown's black residents called him Robocop for his aggressive tactics and a fellow officer said the 5-foot-6 detective took his Napoleon complex out on suspects.

Knaze's killing was his first big murder case. Neighbors told Rok that they last saw her inviting a black man, who claimed his car broke down, into her home. He had Simmons pegged as the man from the beginning.

A troubled suspect

It's easy to see why Ernie Simmons was a target. Born in 1957 to a 13-year-old mother in Philadelphia, his father abandoned the family, then sexually abused him during visits. His mother controlled her son by tying him up, before letting him roam the streets and find his meals in the garbage.

After child welfare agencies took him, he bounced between foster homes until a Harrisburg preacher and his wife adopted him. His stepmother later told his lawyers he was their most grateful foster child, but said the couple "got to him too late. He had spent too many years on the street just trying to survive."

Simmons was busted for stealing at least three times as a juvenile and quit Susquehanna High School in the 11 th grade. By the time he was 27, he pleaded guilty to 19 different charges for stealing everything from swimming trunks to credit cards.

In his rare time outside prison, friends in Harrisburg say Simmons acted paranoid and exhibited delusions of grandeur, such as wearing a doctor's coat and claiming he was a medical student while working at a fast-food restaurant. He was later diagnosed with organic brain damage.

His most serious conviction came in 1984 in Harrisburg, where he admitted he forced his way into the homes of two elderly men, stealing a car from one and beating another before taking $70. He was sentenced to 7-15 years in prison.

At the same time, police began to suspect he was responsible for killing two other elderly Harrisburg residents, even though they lacked proof.

Was he a serial killer?

In prison Simmons earned his barber's certificate before being paroled in Aug. 1991 at age 34. He chose Johnstown as a place where he could have a fresh start. With ambitions to run the city's first black beauty shop, he found work cutting hair and enrolled in cosmetology school.

Within six months of arriving in Johnstown, he would run into trouble. Simmons called police and reported he stumbled upon an 83-year-old man with a knife in his neck in his apartment complex. The man died a month later without identifying his attacker.

Police believed Simmons committed the murder, but like the Harrisburg killings, they had no evidence.

On the second day of the Knaze investigation, Rok traced Simmons back to the Harrisburg detective who busted him for the robberies there. The detective said he believed Simmons also killed two other elderly victims but couldn't prove it.

Rok figured he had his man. Simmons was imprisoned on a technical parole violation nine days after the killing, giving Rok time to build a case against a man he now believed was a possible serial killer.

Simmons has been behind bars ever since.

Jail ID spurs charges

Simmons told police he drove his girlfriend to an appointment in downtown Johnstown on the day of the murder. He then took her friends to an auto shop and stopped at a bank on the way back. He was late picking up his girlfriend, arriving around 11:45 a.m.

He claimed the tight schedule precluded him from committing the murder, but Rok believed he had just enough time.

If the murder likely occurred around 11, as the autopsy showed, Simmons argued his tight schedule didn't give him time to commit the crime. Rok believed Simmons had just enough time. The belief was bolstered by two workers from a day-care center 150 feet away, who identified Simmons as part of an interracial couple they saw walk past near the time of the killing.

Later, they would hedge on who they saw.

A next-door neighbor and her son's girlfriend told Rok they watched Knaze speaking with a black man near her home between 11-11:30 a.m. But neither woman picked Simmons out of a six-man photo lineup.

A month into Rok's investigation, the same neighbor who couldn't identify Simmons reported her son, Gary Blough, also saw the man near the murder scene.

Blough was later jailed for violating parole on a two-year prison sentence for receiving stolen property, unlawful restraint and other charges. In a jailhouse interview with Rok, he fingered his fellow inmate Simmons.

Blough's statement would set him free, but the reason for his early release would be kept from jurors.

No physical evidence

Rok still had only questionable witnesses and no physical evidence connecting Simmons to the crime. Nine partial fingerprints found in Knaze's home didn't match him, while a bloodstain and fingernail at the scene weren't adequate for testing.

Two months later at a coroner's inquest, the next-door neighbor still didn't recognize Simmons in a six-photo lineup. But Blough joined the day-care workers in identifying him as the suspect.

And now Blough's girlfriend, who admitted she saw Simmons while visiting Blough in jail, identified Simmons as the suspect for the first time. He was charged the next day with murder.

"The police, who should have been searching for truth and justice, instead were allowed to manufacture charges and to suppress the truth," he later wrote.

A mysterious clue

Knowing he faced a trial with questionable witnesses, Rok stepped up his pursuit of Simmons' girlfriend, LaCherie Pletcher, figuring she knew more than she was letting on.

Long after the trial, Pletcher revealed in court that she agreed to help him because she "was scared he was going to try to pin something on me, and I was worried about the welfare of my daughter."

Her help included secret tapings, but the information wouldn't be revealed until years later.

Pletcher also provided a key tip: she told Rok that she searched Simmons' wallet weeks before the murder and found the license of an elderly woman who lived on Figg Avenue. The identification itself would never be found, but Rok pursued the lead anyway.

He used the morsel of information to locate a report Figg Avenue resident Margaret Cobaugh said her wallet was stolen around the same time. But that wasn't all.

He then found a report that Cobaugh also claimed she was raped, just 13 hours after Knaze's murder.

13 changes to story

Cobaugh, then 61, was a friend of Knaze and lived nearby . She had put an 11-year jail stint long behind her and worked at the local senior center.

According to the report, Cobaugh told police she was attacked as she walked home from helping her elderly next-door neighbor.

In her initial statement, Cobaugh said she called an ambulance company to fix the neighbor's faulty breathing system and left as the vehicle approached. A man grabbed her from behind and threatened to kill her if she screamed, she said.

She told police she didn't get a good look at the man's face . She didn't get medical attention and didn't tell her husband that night. Instead, she waited until the next day to call police and destroyed possible evidence by soaking her underwear in the toilet.

She would ask police the next day to withdraw the report, but that information would be long kept from Simmons' defense lawyers.

Rok also never let lawyers know he questioned her at least 10 times over two months before he took a formal statement from Cobaugh about the incident. By then, she had changed 13 elements from her original story.

Most critically, she now claimed her attacker had warned her not to "open your motherfucking mouth" or she would "get the same thing Anna Knaze got"--even though the attacker would have been saying the statement before Knaze's body had been discovered.

She now claimed she saw her attacker's face , later identifying him as Simmons. The threat was the crucial piece of information Rok needed to connect him to the killing.

'Tell him the truth!'

As the trial neared, Simmons' defense team began to uncover inconsistencies in witnesses' stories. Private investigator James Porreca, a retired Philadelphia police officer, found the two day-care workers who identified Simmons were hedging.

Rok said two day-care workers identified Simmons in front of Knaze's home, but one told Porreca she wasn't sure Simmons was the man because "all blacks look alike." The other said she told police she saw the same man again at a time Simmons was already in jail.

Porreca also found no ambulance company within 20 miles of Cobaugh's neighbor responded to her home. He interviewed the neighbor, who said Cobaugh admitted concocting the tale. The neighbor said she told Cobaugh, "You got yourself involved in something and don't include me in your problems."

Porreca later testified that he went to confront Cobaugh, he first encountered her double amputee husband Donald, who asked "What happens if they find out my wife was telling a lie?" When Margaret Cobaugh walked in the room, her husband said "Tell him the truth! Tell him the truth!" before she stopped the interview by wheeling him away.

After prosecutors complained about the incident, a judge chastised defense lawyers for badgering the witness. Porreca never found out what Cobaugh's husband meant. Neither would Simmons' jury.

Confusion among witnesses

"Shut your motherfucking mouth or you will get the same thing Anna Knaze got" were the first words out of Cambria County Assistant District Attorney Gary Costlow 's mouth at the start of the June 1, 1993 trial .

Costlow conceded he lacked physical evidence to tie Simmons to the crime, but told jurors "you will realize that the statement reveals the identity of the murderer in this case."

Simmons' lawyer, Cambria County Assistant Public Defender Michael Filia, told the jury police engaged in a "target-oriented investigation" aimed at Simmons. Filia would never be given the forensic evidence that excluded Simmons and supported his claim.

"The police had one suspect, one suspect in mind and that was Mr. Simmons ... Their investigation was designed to lead them to that conclusion," Filia said.

Five witnesses fingered Simmons as the man they saw near Knaze's home but contradictions were brought out in each case. The witnesses provided conflicting descriptions of his clothing and couldn't agree on times.

One of the day care workers identified Simmons despite admitting confusion, while the other wasn't called to take the stand.

Blough admitted he didn't contact police about seeing Simmons until after he was locked up but denied receiving any benefits for his testimony. Blough's mother and girlfriend also identified Simmons, despite the fact they repeatedly failed to identify him for months after the crime.

The mother said she spotted Knaze as late as 11:30 a.m., which would have given Simmons only 15 minutes to pummel and rob her before meeting his girlfriend.

Neighbor never called

As Costlow said in his opening, the prosecution's case hinged on Cobaugh's claim her rapist mentioned Knaze. Despite her claim in the first rape report she wasn't able to see her attacker's face, she now testified Simmons was definitely the man. At the end of the testimony, she collapsed before jurors.

Simmons' lawyers showed her story grew from initial statements to the court testimony, changing the time of the attack and adding the statement about Knaze.

They called representatives from the ambulance companies to show she made up that part of her story. But the neighbor who contradicted her refused to answer a subpoena.

Defense attorneys decided forcing the elderly neighbor to testify might harm Simmons' case, believing they already showed the jury Cobaugh was lying.

Cobaugh key to verdict

Attorneys again focused on the threat during final arguments of the four-day trial. Assistant public defender Kenneth Sottile suggested Rok led Cobaugh to invoke Knaze's name.

"Did your attacker say anything about Anna Knaze? That is all it would take. One question and I think Marge's mind would start," he said.

"What phrase could we use to summarize this case? 'Shut your f-in mouth or you are going to get what Anna Knaze got.' ... Who said that statement killed Anna Knaze," countered Assistant District Attorney Patrick Kiniry.

The jury, which included just one black member, took five hours to find Simmons guilty of murder and robbery. Juror Rose Anna Kaiser would later say she rationalized the changes to Cobaugh's story as results of the stress.

The conviction "was entirely based on circumstantial evidence, but it was strong circumstantial evidence," Kaiser said.

A decade later when told of the evidence she never heard, she said she likely would have voted to acquit him.

'It's far from over'

Prosecutors offered Simmons life in prison if he pleaded guilty to the Knaze murder and admitted to other crimes. He refused and entered the death penalty phase of the case with public defender Linda Fleming, who hadn't attended the trial.

The American Bar Association recommends attorneys develop their penalty phase argument early in the case and use a mental health specialist to mitigate evidence against defendants. Pittsburgh attorney Caroline Roberto, who has handled a half-dozen death penalty cases, said such work "takes weeks or months to do if you're going to do it right."

Fleming had just two days. She spoke two hours with Simmons, knew little about his background and didn't request a mental examination, calling only a woman he met through a prison pen-pal service in his defense.

After the prosecution presented witnesses who detailed Simmons' past crimes against the elderly, the jury deliberated less than three hours before condemning him to death. Even then, Simmons maintained his innocence.

"It's far from over," he told reporters.

Days before death

Simmons twice came close to lethal injection. After the state Superior and Supreme courts denied his appeals, Gov. Tom Ridge signed his death warrant in November 1995.

He was given a stay of execution to appeal the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case. Ridge signed another death warrant in March 20, 1996, setting the execution for April 14.

Four days before he was to die, Simmons was granted another stay for a post-conviction hearing.

Soon the Defender Association of Philadelphia, which represents death-row inmates on appeal, found for the first time Pletcher helped police secretly tape record Simmons.

Despite five subpoenas, Johnstown police and prosecutors denied tapes existed. At a March 1998 hearing, Rok claimed 10 times that no tapes were made.

"If they exist, I am not aware of them. I never used them. I never played them. I never heard them," he said.

Pletcher, however, testified months of recordings were made. The day of her testimony, Rok checked out 1 1/2 hours of recordings from the Johnstown police evidence locker, where they'd been for five years.

Within a week, another Johnstown officer admitted he took home 20 pages of police reports referring to the tapes.

'The silence of the lamb'

On the tapes the jury never heard, Simmons told Pletcher "without a shadow of a doubt my innocence can be proven." He declared his innocence 19 times, while she lied nine times about working for police.

He said racism fueled the investigation. "Look, I'm black in a black and white relationship in a dominant white town." He said police accused him of being "the Johnstown Stalker," responsible for a dozen deaths across the state.

"Yesterday, I was a mild-mannered guy. And now they've got me as a serial killer, the silence of the lamb," he said.

Public defender Sottile called the tapes "a defense attorney's dream" at the post-conviction hearing. He would have been able to present Simmons' side of the story without putting him on the stand, which would have subjected him to questions about his criminal past.

"The argument is that they take the woman that he loves, they wire her up and they have her have a two-hour conversation where she very artfully tries to get him to make admissions (and) they didn't get anything even close to that," he said.

'I washed them away'

Eight months after Rok's denials about the tapes, he was hauled back to court to explain their discovery.

"I never thought of the tapes after those days ... I washed them away. I washed that situation away. I didn't obtain what we were seeking," he testified.

Under criminal law regarding discovery rules, prosecutors must seek out and provide defense lawyers evidence that might show innocence or shed negative light on witnesses. As it turns out, the tapes weren't the only withheld evidence.

Jurors never knew Cobaugh's clothes were tested after she reported the attack. No blood or semen was found on any of the items, but hair found on Cobaugh's nightgown matched neither her nor Simmons.

At the hearing, Rok claimed he didn't disclose the results because they were a "dead end." He explained, "They revealed no evidentiary value" -- meaning they didn't implicate Simmons.

Rok also admitted Cobaugh failed in her first attempt to pick Simmons from a book featuring 300 mug shots. He didn't divulge the information because he "never thought of it."

But he never hinted that Cobaugh's inability to identify Simmons went much deeper.

Secret deals revealed

Rok also prevented jurors from hearing about Cobaugh's criminal past. Cobaugh was a former runaway prostitute who was convicted of burglary and larceny at age 21 for breaking into a woman's home and stealing clothes. She served an 11-year prison sentence.

Days after she made the rape report, she bought a handgun and lied about the conviction on the firearms form. A state trooper discovered the offense during a routine check and she faced at least five years in prison for gun possession by a felon.

While the jury never heard it, Rok admitted at the appeal he asked the trooper to drop her gun case. A prosecutor acknowledged he convinced a judge to dismiss the charges three months before Simmons' trial.

Another prosecutor disclosed that he helped another witness, Blough, the ex-convict who was jailed on a parole violation, obtain early release. One of his fellow inmates told attorneys in a sworn affidavit that Blough called Simmons his "get out of jail free" card and would say whatever he needed to gain freedom.

Prosecutors in the case didn't answer questions sent to them. Public defender Sottile says he remains shocked by Rok and their claims of memory lapses about the withheld evidence.

"They would have mocked a criminal for that kind of testimony. They would have crucified him," he said.

The judge decided other evidence against Simmons outweighed the new information. He ruled the tapes contained self-serving declarations of innocence and the hair tests didn't prove anything, denying him a new trial.

A disgraced detective

Around the same time, Rok's abuses started to gain new attention. U.S. District Court records show Rok was accused of cajoling an elderly witness in 1998 to falsely identify a robbery suspect.

After the suspect was acquitted, he sued Rok and Johnstown police for false arrest, witness tampering and destroying evidence. The case was later dismissed.

Also in 1998, Rok helped Johnstown police apprehend a man in a domestic dispute. While the man was handcuffed on the ground, Rok kicked him in the face and broke his nose, then stepped on his groin, according to an action filed in U.S. District Court.

Following a federal investigation, Rok pleaded guilty in 2002 to a misdemeanor civil rights violation. After a hearing in which two other criminals claimed they were attacked by the detective, he was sentenced to one year in prison and quit the force.

Using the light sentencing of officers in the Rodney King case as an example, he appealed the sentence as too harsh. A judge upheld the sentence in September 2003.

Suffering from a lifelong kidney ailment that forced a transplant, he was sent to a federal medical prison in Missouri. He didn't return requests for comment sent to the prison, his wife and family members.

'He didn't have a witness'

Simmons would land a last-ditch federal appeal before another date was set for his execution.

The appeal judge ordered another piece of withheld evidence, the handwritten notes of the officer who took Cobaugh's initial rape report, to be turned over.

The notes showed for the first time that Cobaugh called police the day after the report and asked for the investigation to be ended.

Between her statements to police, conversation with a neighbor and testimony, Cobaugh had changed her story five times. Her recent conversation with reporters makes at least six.

Cobaugh, now 73, lives in the same home she did during the alleged attack. She told reporters from the Innocence Institute that she named Simmons because Rok "was positive that Ernest Simmons did it, but he had no proof of it.

"Detective Rok already knew it--but he didn't have a witness," she said.

Never saw his face

She now says Rok convinced her that Simmons was guilty, telling her that her license, Social Security card and checkbook was found on him. In reality, Rok had found nothing.

Cobaugh said she told Rok she "could not positively identify anyone," but he continued to interrogate her 10 times over several weeks.

"I think Detective Rok wanted a conviction more than anything. He wanted Ernie Simmons bad," she said.

After Rok showed her a picture of Simmons wearing a ring she said was similar to what her attacker wore, she finally agreed to finger Simmons.

"I didn't exactly picture Ernie Simmons, but what I went by is the ring on his hand," she said.

Despite her court testimony to the contrary, she now admits she never saw the face of her alleged attacker.

"It could have been [Simmons], it could have not," she said.

Admits lie, but still convinced

Cobaugh dismissed questions about the contradictions to her story, including her husband, neighbor and the ambulance companies refuting key details and forensic evidence that discounted Simmons.

She didn't mention the Knaze statement for at least four months after the rape because she was scared, she said, rejecting suggestions Rok fed the line to her.

"There's no way on this Earth that anyone in their right mind would make up a story like that," she said.

Cobaugh said she didn't care if she didn't see Simmons' face, she's still convinced he killed Knaze.

"He was not going to hurt another person if I could help it," she said

In a recent letter, Simmons wrote he wasn't surprised she admitted lying.

"It's something that I've been saying for years, to the point that I felt like the boy who cried wolf," he wrote. "She just can't keep changing her story when she wants to, and think that she's going to get away with it."

Not perfect, but innocent?

U.S. District Judge Sean McLaughlin heard arguments Jan. 30 on whether ineffective defense attorneys, police and prosecutor misconduct and new evidence are enough reason to grant Simmons a new trial.

If the judge rules against Simmons, he will have few appeals left.

When told about all of the new evidence, juror Rose Kaiser expressed frustration so much information was withheld from the jury.

"It's scary and it's mind boggling that something like that could happen," she said.

Public defender Sottile said the gross misconduct by police and prosecutors gives enough cause for a new trial because Simmons "never got a fair one the first time around."

Others believe a new trial would give a man they believe is a serial killer a chance at freedom.

Rita Marcinek claims Simmons killed her father, the Johnstown man he found with a knife in his neck.

"No one put Ernie Simmons where he is but himself," Marcinek said. "Now it's time to just face up to it."

Simmons' attorneys wouldn't allow him to be interviewed for this story. But in letters, Simmons expressed regret for past crimes but maintained his innocence in the Knaze murder.

"During my life there have been crimes for which I have been in prison and for which I served my time and for which I am sorry," he wrote. "However, now I am waiting my turn on death row for a crime which I did not commit."

Published version: Is death row convict guilty of killing Johnstown woman?
(January 25, 2004)


Chicago wrongful death attorney said...

Some places are very much effected bye the problem of increasing Death Toll. The security forces have to work with a great vigilant behavior to control this.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't seem odd to you bleeding hearts that Simmons in guilty. He is seen and at the homes of two elderly people who were murdered. He finds one and "visited" the other. AND HE PLEAD GUILTY!!!!!!!!!!!

Julia B. said...

I met Ernie just 2 days ago on a Greyhound bus in Pittsburgh. He was on his way to Philly for the funeral of one of the team members from the Innocence Institute. I was going back to NYC. Absolute sweetest man in the world. I would bet my LIFE that he did not kill that woman. He admitted to the beatings and robbery of the two elderly men, and he's admitted that he did a lot of bad, stupid shit back then. Mostly stealing cars, among other things. That was the first thing he told me when I tried to buy a cigarette offa him. He gave me two and we just started talking.

Shared an 8 hour bus ride, and I probably know this man better than any of you fuckers that even DARE to judge him. What murderer buys a stranded girl food, smokes, and makes sure she has money for the train ride home? Really, now? And he listens to soul music! I can read people, very, very well. And I could swear he did not commit those murders.

And, even if he did, people change. They mature, and they realize there are other ways to live. He had a hard...hard life that you people can't even IMAGINE. So don't you even presume to put yourself in his shoes, because you can't fit in 'em.

T said...

ok dumbass who said he plead guilty. The story goes that to all his previous crimes he plead guilty. However to this murder he swore numerous times that he was innocent. Including more than 15 times in a secret recording. A man who is lying will eventually accidentally or purposely change his story. But a man who is telling the truth CANNOT change his story. Ernie's story changed not one time. While many police officers and key witnesses in the case did change theirs. As far as the death toll increasing it doesnt mean that police have the right to manipulate evidence to convict someone of a crime they did not commit. Based upon all my research of this case, I am with the above. I would bet anything he is innocent.