McNerney homicide trial postponed

Jurors being told not to report Monday

February 28, 2014
Police officers, prosecutors and defense attorneys gather in Washington County Courthouse Friday before a conference in the Tim McNerney homicide trial. - Barbara S. Miller / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Snow or no, Judge Edward Borkowski expected to begin choosing a jury Monday to weigh evidence in the homicide trial of those accused in the death of Washington & Jefferson College student Tim McNerney. He instead postponed pretrial matters until March 7 because one of the three defendants retained a new lawyer who said he needed time to familiarize himself with the case.

McNerney, a W&J junior and football player from Butler, died in October 2012 across the street from campus after he and a teammate, Zach DeCicco of Jefferson Hills, were allegedly assaulted by the suspects as they were walking back to campus from a local tavern.

Awaiting trial in the case after their August arrest on charges of homicide, theft, robbery and conspiracy are Adam Hankins, 24, of 348 Houston St., Washington; Troy LaMonte Simmons Jr., 23, of East Pittsburgh; and Eric Dante Wells, 25, of Pittsburgh. They are jailed without bond.

Investigators said they used a GPS device to trace a cellphone stolen from McNerney to one of the suspects and used that information to seek arrests.

McNerney died from an injury to the back of his head suffered when he was knocked to the ground near South College and East Maiden streets.

Pittsburgh attorney Michael J. DeRiso was retained Feb. 10 to review the case of Wells, and he filed an official notice with the court that he would be representing Wells nine days later. Last Friday, he filed a motion asking the trial be postponed.

DeRiso said after Friday’s proceeding before Borkowski that he needs time to examine cellphone records, the tracking of the phone and statements given to police. After that, he will consult with his two investigators “and then adequately prepare for trial if this cannot be worked out.”

“This is a case I think that if the district attorney’s office and defense counsel come to an agreement based on the evidence I have reviewed and the statements given, we should be able to agree on a resolution,” he said.

DeRiso, seeming to choose his words carefully, said, “I certainly don’t want to put the family through any more troubling times than they’ve already had when this happened and while the investigation was happening, and now dealing with this. It’s got to be horrible for them. In good faith, we’re going to attempt to negotiate with the district attorney’s office and hopefully resolve this before the next trial date.”

He deliberately declined to use the word “plea” as he broached the possibility of resolving the case.

DeRiso in December represented Gregory Avery, 25, of Washington, who was acquitted of charges stemming from a 2009 double homicide outside the Cabaret West tavern on West Chestnut Street in Washington.

In that case, DeRiso squared off against then-First Assistant District Attorney Michael Lucas, who is now a Common Pleas Court judge, with Assistant District Attorney Chad Schneider serving as “second chair.”

Schneider, who succeeded Lucas as first assistant district attorney in January, said McNerney’s family members were notified of the postponement, and students no longer in the area had not yet traveled here for a trial. He had expected to call between 15 and 20 witnesses.

Borkowski, who said he was “disappointed” his schedule had gone by the wayside due to the requested postponement, agreed to grant it and set aside March 7 for a pretrial hearing and status conference.

Lt. Dan Stanek said after the courtroom emptied, “We accept the court’s guidance. This is something we’re not objecting to. We knew there was going to be a motion filed.”

Attorney John Puskar, who represents Simmons, had prepared proposed questions for potential jurors. Before leaving the courthouse, he said, “The continuance has not prejudiced my client. We were prepared to go to trial Monday.”

Both he and Dennis Popojas, who represents Hankins, said they discussed Friday’s developments with their clients. The defendants were not in court Friday.

Because of the impending winter storm, members of the jury pool had begun calling the courthouse earlier this week to determine the status of the trial.

Once the proceeding before Borkowski had adjourned Friday, workers in the court administrator’s office recorded a statement letting them know that their services would not be required. Hundreds of summonses went out specifically for the McNerney trial, which was being convened separately from Washington County’s March 24 to April 4 trial term.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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