The attorneys for three men charged in the death of a Washington & Jefferson College student hope their convictions Tuesday offer some type of closure to the victim’s family.
Just as jury selection was set to start for the Timothy McNerney homicide trial Tuesday morning, the three defendants in the case accepted plea agreements. Adam Hankins, 24, of Washington, Troy LaMonte Simmons Jr., 23, of East Pittsburgh, and Eric Dante Wells, 25, of Pittsburgh, pleaded guilty to robbery. The three were also found guilty of third-degree murder during a stipulated nonjury trial before visiting Judge Edward Borkowski. Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone said all parties agreed about the evidence that was to be presented in the case, and Borkowski was left to determine the degree of the homicide charge.
McNerney, 21, a W&J 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. 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.
Simmons’ attorney, Jack Puskar, and Wells’ attorney, Michael J. DeRiso, argued before Borkoswki that McNerney’s death happened by chance.
“I don’t believe for a minute that this was a planned event,” DeRiso said. “I believe this was a chance encounter where you had college students and people who live in this town fight. It turned into a theft and robbery and someone died.”
“Five minutes earlier, five minutes later, this wouldn’t have happened,” Puskar said.
McNerney’s family was present during Tuesday’s hearing, and agreed with the plea deal, Vittone said. McNerney’s family declined to comment.
Vittone said he was satisfied with the judge determining the three were guilty of third-degree murder, calling it a “just result.”
He said the defendants could face anywhere from 6 to 25 years in prison when they are sentenced Aug. 25.
Puskar said he was hoping the judge would hand down a voluntary manslaughter conviction. He said it was difficult for his client to accept the plea agreement.
“My client was reluctant because he wasn’t involved in the death of Mr. McNerney,” he said. “We are very sorry for the loss of Mr. McNerney. We are very sorry for what happened to Mr. DeCicco. After reviewing the evidence, we felt it was tacitly the best decision to make.”
DeRiso said the charge seemed fair.
“Voluntary manslaughter wasn’t what this case was about,” he said. “We have a loss of life and that needs to be respected, and I think the judge did a good job with that.”
Dennis Popojas, who represents Hankins, said Hankins was “very willing to take responsibility.”
“My client wanted to express that he’s relieved that the family has some closure,” he said.
DeRiso said Wells, who punched McNerney and knocked him to the ground, is remorseful.
“He has always wanted to apologize. He wanted to write letters,” he said. “Obviously, through my advice, that can’t happen. But that doesn’t give them (McNerney’s family) any comfort because their son is dead. This gives the family some closure.”