SUNBURY — Citing the recent fire at the Northumberland County Prison among several reasons, attorneys for a Turbot Township man charged in the April 14, 2012, shooting death of his wife are asking the courts to set bail for their client.
As part of a nearly three-hour hearing held Wednesday before Northumberland County President Judge William Harvey Wiest, Attorney George Lepley asked Wiest to consider granting bail for Robert Charles Thomas Sr., 68, who has been locked up since June on charges of criminal homicide, false reports to law enforcement authorities and tampering with physical evidence.
The charges stem from the shooting death of Thomas’ wife, Patricia Ann, who was 64 at the time she was killed in the couple’s home at 1050 Phillips Road, Turbot Township, Northumberland County.
James Protasio, the co-counsel on the case, also asked Wiest to consider throwing out the criminal homicide count. In a break from the proceedings, Protasio said he’s also looking to have statements Thomas allegedly made suppressed from the trial.
Protasio said he was unable to comment on what those statements are as commenting could taint a potential jury pool.
Wiest did not announce when he would be making a determination on the requests filed by Lepley and Protasio. As of late Wednesday afternoon, the Northumberland County District Attorney’s Office said no decision had been rendered.
Lepley told Wiest that Thomas has been locked up in the State Correctional Institute at Coal Township since the Northumberland County Prison burned. Male inmates who were displaced by the fire were transferred to Coal Township.
According to Lepley, visiting Thomas at Coal Township has proved problematic.
“I waited 45 minutes until I got into the visiting area,” Lepley said.
Once inside, Lepley said he had to speak with Thomas while the two were separated by a glass window.
“That was extremely difficult because my client’s hearing aids were lost in the fire at the Northumberland County Prison,” Lepley said.
Thomas used a special hearing device provided by the court in order to hear the proceedings on Wednesday.
Lepley also told Wiest that bail should be considered, and Thomas could be placed on house arrest, because he is not a flight risk and the prosecution is not seeking the death penalty.
“(Thomas) stayed in the area a little over two years before the arrest was made,” Lepley said.
Northumberland County Assistant District Attorney Michael Seward told Wiest that bail should not be granted as Thomas is facing the possibility of life in prison if convicted of the charges filed against him.
“I don’t think it’s a reasonable complaint that the prison burned,” Seward added.
Protasio outlined several reasons why the criminal homicide charge should be dismissed.
“The only evidence that was produced at all was a witness who had previously worked with the defendant,” Protasio said.
During a preliminary hearing held in June before District Judge Michael Diehl, of Milton, David Winters testified that he had worked with Thomas for about 10 months in 2011 at Catherman’s Garage.
Through the course of numerous conversations, Winters said Thomas once admitted to wanting to see his wife dead.
“(Winters) testified the defendant said ‘if I could get away with it, I would shoot my wife,’” Protasio said on Wednesday while stressing that was the only evidence against Thomas.
Seward countered by stating that there is additional evidence, most notably evidence that Patricia was both shot and suffocated.
“There is evidence of violence at the time she died,” Seward said. “Mr. Thomas has admitted he was with her at the time she died. More importantly was the defendant’s action that he did not seek help when she was first shot.”
Protasio said there is not enough evidence to file first, second or third degree manslaughter charges against Thomas.
Seward countered that the degree of the criminal homicide count is to be determined at the trial.
“The defendant used a deadly weapon,” Seward said. “He used a handgun and Mrs. Thomas died.”
In order for Thomas to be convicted of second-degree homicide, Protasio said the prosecution must show malice on his part.
“There is no evidence there was any kind of malice,” Protasio said. “This seems to be a couple that got along… The commonwealth may have shown there has been some recklessness.”
Tpr. Matt Laforme, who was one of three troopers to testify on Wednesday, wrote in a criminal complaint filed in June that emergency services received a call from Thomas at 1:03 a.m. Saturday, April 14, 2012, stating an unknown actor had broken into his home.
He allegedly told emergency services that he had found his wife lying on the ground.
According to court papers, Thomas told police he had grabbed a loaded Colt handgun from a night stand, which must have discharged while he struggle with the intruder.
Protasio questioned Laforme on Wednesday about a conversation he had with Thomas while interviewing him after the day after the shooting.
Through the course of their conversation, Laforme said Thomas became emotional when he started talking about his granddaughter.
This conversation, Laforme testified, occurred immediately before Thomas was considered a suspect.
Cpl. Joseph Akers, who also testified on Wednesday, said he walked into the room and found Thomas emotional as he was talking to Laforme.
“I was surprised Mr. Thomas was visibly upset,” Akers testified. “I asked what had happened. Mr. Thomas admitted he had staged the scene.”
At that point, Akers said police read Thomas his Miranda rights.
“(Thomas) then told us, very specifically, what had happened with the staging,” Akers said. “Mr. Thomas insisted we not tell the family he had staged the scene. He was the one that wanted to do that.”
According to Akers, Thomas’ son, daughter-in-law and several other relatives were at the state police barracks when he allegedly admitted to staging the scene.
“He apologized to his family,” Akers said.
Sgt. Fred Dyroff also testified, with much of Protasio’s questions to him focusing on whether police knew if Thomas was under the influence of medication that could have clouded his thoughts when he was questioned immediately after being released from the hospital following the incident.
“We’re not medical professionals, we’re investigators,” Dyroff said. “He was cleared from the hospital.”
During his testimony, Akers said Thomas was asked if he was “in control of his faculties.” To which Thomas allegedly answered “yes.”
“(Thomas) was very willing to assist in the investigation,” Akers said.
Dyroff and Akers were both asked by Protasio what Thomas was wearing when he was transported from the hospital to the barracks for questioning.
Through the course of his questioning, Protasio asked Dyroff if he found it unusual that Thomas was still wearing a hospital gown when he was brought to the barracks.
“His clothes were gathered as evidence,” Dyroff said. “That’s not surprising at all.”
Akers said during his testimony that, rather than wearing a hospital gown, Thomas was wearing a hospital-issued shirt, pants and footies.
“He never indicated he was uncomfortable or asked for different clothing,” Akers said.
Dyroff testified that it wasn’t unusual for someone who had allegedly witnessed a homicide to be taken directly from the hospital to the police barracks for questioning.
“We like to interview the victim as soon as possible so their memory is more fresh,” Dyroff said.
While no other witnesses were called on Wednesday, Protasio asked to have six weeks to review the transcript from the hearing before deciding if he needs to call any other witnesses in relation to the request to suppress some of Thomas’ statements.
A follow-up hearing on the issue has been scheduled for 1:15 p.m. April 8.
Staff writer Kevin Mertz can be reached at 570-742-9671 or email email@example.com.