For the second time this year, a Schuylkill County convict was granted a reprieve from execution. Death Row inmate Ronald Champney of Pottsville, convicted of first degree murder in the shooting death of Roy Bensinger in 1999, was awarded a new trial on Tuesday in the Schuylkill County Court of Common Pleas. President Judge William Baldwin ruled in a 57-page opinion that Champney had been ineffectively represented by his attorney and might not have been convicted but for the mistakes of his attorney Marsha Ann Chwastiak. Although the Clarke Report understands that this may be a hard pill to swallow for the Bensinger family, I believe that Baldwin made the correct decision.
Let me start off by saying that I am a strong proponent of the death penalty. I believe it to be an appropriate punishment for pre-meditated murder and acts as a deterrent to others who may be inclined to commit such a heinous crime. That said, executions should not be carried out when there is doubt to the veracity of the judicial process. I believe that if a man is put to death by the state with a question as to his guilt or to whether his due process was fully enjoyed, it sullies not only his case, but also the entire legal system.
In Champney’s case, Judge Baldwin believed that there were enough questions present do just that. Accordingly, he granted a new trial. I applaud Baldwin for his professional courage in rendering such a decision. He is bound to be criticized by many for plucking such a notorious figure from death row for technicalities that most without a legal education won’t understand. Some will say guilty is guilty and small flaws in the trial process would not have changed the ultimate verdict. However, just because Champney may ultimately be guilty doesn’t make Baldwin’s decision any less right. The American justice system is built on the bedrock ideals of innocent until proven guilty and due process of law. If one of those is in ANY doubt, the system must correct itself, i.e, start over.
Here, there are four specific areas that cast a cloud on the verdict:
(1) When being questioned by the state police, Champney asked for his attorney, Frank Cori. According to the law, at that moment, the troopers should have ceased questioning Champney and summoned Cori. That didn’t happen. Instead they continued. Those statements were then used at trial. Champney’s attorney never moved to supress the statements pre-trial and even failed to object to their admission during the trial.
(2) The District Attorney failed to disclose that David Blickley, their star witness, offered to cooperate in the case only after DA Shields opposed his parole from prison in 1994. After joining the prosecution team, Blickley was released in 1995. This would have been important information during the trial because Champney could have called into question Blickley’s credibility on cross examination. Maybe the jury would not have believed him.
(3) Champney’s attorney never hired a forensics expert to challenge the veracity of the prosecution’s evidence.
(4) A reference was made during the trial to the fact that before Champney was arrested, he remained silent when asked questions by police. The prosecution inferred that his silence was a sign of his guilt. This type of tactic is blatantly illegal and violates Champney’s constitutional rights. His attorney, though, never even objected.
Every American is guaranteed both a fair trial and effective representation at that trial by a competent attorney in the Constitution of the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. If anything is clear from the facts listed above, Champney was not afforded anything close to competent representation. Champney probably killed that man, but before we kill him, we must ensure that all the rights and protections guaranteed to him under the Constitution have been respected.