State court orders new trial for Monongahela man

A state appeals court reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial for a Monongahela man imprisoned after a kidnapping and rape conviction in 2015.

John Yocolano II

An appellate court has ordered a new trial for a Monongahela man found guilty of raping and assaulting his former girlfriend in 2015.

A three-judge panel of the Superior Court Monday reversed 36-year-old John D. Yocolano II’s conviction and vacated his 18- to 36-year prison sentence, citing several errors by the Washington County judge who presided over the case and finding “the prejudicial effect of these erroneous evidentiary rulings were significant and deprived (Yocolano) of a fair trial.”

Attorney Noah Geary represented Yocolano on appeal.

A Washington County jury found Yocolano, currently housed in SCI-Houtzdale in Clearfield County, guilty on 13 counts, including rape and kidnapping, following a weeklong trial in January 2015 before Judge John F. DiSalle. The alleged victim and Yocolano had a son together, and an on-again, off-again relationship that precipitated an engagement at one point before the woman broke it off. She testified at trial she went to his apartment to collect their son Dec. 6, 2012 – the same day she’d filed a petition to withdraw a protection-from-abuse order against him she’d previously sought – when he lured her inside, according to her trial testimony.

According to an opinion by Judge Judith Olson, the woman testified Yocolano punched her in the face and began choking her before carrying her to the bedroom, where he bound her wrists and ankles with an electrical cord and raped her multiple times (Olson’s opinion noted Yocolano contends they had consensual sex). The woman fled when a friend came to look for her at Yocolano’s apartment and reported the incident to police.

Olson’s opinion identified several “erroneous evidentiary rulings” by DiSalle as the basis for the decision.

The appellate court cited DiSalle’s decision to improperly bar Yocolano’s trial attorney from calling rebuttal witnesses who would have disputed the alleged victim’s accounts of abuse Yocolano had allegedly committed on previous occasions. “Once the trial court found the evidence was material to explain the complete story, it follows that (Yocolano) should have been permitted to test the veracity of (the alleged victim’s) version of events,” the opinion said.

Olson also pointed to two PFAs against Yocolano involving women other than the alleged victim, which the prosecution produced for the first time on the fourth day of the trial. The appellate judges found the prosecution didn’t explain the reason for producing those documents mid-trial, meaning it didn’t meet its burden of showing “good cause” for the late discovery.

“The Commonwealth could have discovered the third-party PFAs through due diligence prior to the trial and given (Yocolano) proper notice to prepare his defense,” according to the opinion. Olson also concluded DiSalle “did not examine the substance of the third-party PFAs to determine whether the conduct was similar to the alleged crimes” and thus failed to identify the “close factual nexus” necessary to show their relevance to the case.

Finally, the appellate court found testimony by an emergency room doctor and nurse “blurred the line between factual, lay-witness observations and expert testimony requiring specialized knowledge.”

The opinion stated it was appropriate for those witnesses to describe the ligature and strangulation marks they observed when they treated the alleged victim, but improper for them to answer a prosecutor’s questions about whether the injuries were consistent with the woman’s story, when no evidence was presented to show they had the necessary expertise.