A generation-long legal battle over the fate of a once-condemned local inmate was extended last week by at least two more months as lawyers renewed their fight over whether a second trial would unconstitutionally subject the prisoner to double jeopardy.
The fate of former Saltsburg resident Ronald Weiss, who has spent more than 23 years in prison for the 1978 slaying of Barbara Bruzda, hinges on an error made by the state prosecutor in the 1997 trial. Until recently, the case seemed to pivot on whether then-Deputy Attorney General Scott Robinette negligently or intentionally misled the jurors when they heard testimony from two jailhouse snitches.
In recent opinions, courts held that Robinette had exercised bad judgment in carefully wording what he told the jury and that it didn’t rise to the intentional withholding of facts favorable to the defense.
But a ruling last year by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court may erase that distinction and tip the balance toward Weiss’s quest for freedom.
Prosecutorial misconduct “sufficient to invoke double jeopardy protections includes misconduct, which not only deprives the defendants of his right to a fair trial, but is undertaken recklessly, that is, with a conscious disregard for a substantial risk that such will be the result,” the justices ruled May 19, 2020.
Investigators said Bruzda, 16, disappeared Oct. 23, 1978, after she had been seen shooting pool with Weiss in Joe’s Place, a watering hole run by her parents in Tunnelton. After the winter, some hunters stumbled upon Bruzda’s remains wrapped in a quilt in a wooded area near Locust Road in Young Township.
Weiss’s common-law wife Sharon Pearson told police that the quilt looked like one that Weiss had kept in their car. Her testimony was blocked by a spousal immunity statute when police first brought charges in 1985, but was permitted and considered a linchpin of the case against Weiss when police reinstated the case in 1997.
Inmates Kermeth Wright and Samuel Tribuiani testified 23 years ago that they had heard Weiss talk about the Bruzda killing while they were together in prison.
Weiss had been imprisoned for an assault outside Indiana County.
Wright and Tribuiani had approached prison officials and prosecutors to tell of what they heard and agreed to testify in court.
Each later asked for the attorney general’s support in their efforts to be paroled from prison. Robinette’s response, as revealed later in the appeal process, was to write letters to parole boards to advise that Tribuiani and Wright had cooperated in the prosecution of Weiss.
At the trial, Robinette told the jury that neither inmate witness had been rewarded in exchange for testifying against Weiss.
Robinette later explained that he would have told the jury about materially assisting in their cases, such as by withdrawing charges, granting lenience in a trial or shortening their jail terms, if it was within his power or jurisdiction. Instead, Robinette said, he believed that merely writing letters of reference, with no guarantee of getting a break in the legal system, did not amount to a deal that the jury would be required to know for determining their credibility.
Since Weiss’s long series of appeals began — an automatic move because the jury sentenced him to death for Bruzda’s killing — Robinette’s failure to tell the jury of writing letters on behalf of the incarcerated informants was first argued to be outside the standards for a deal to be reported in court.
As Robinette’s silence came into question, prosecutors have also argued in recent years that the inmates’ testimony had no bearing on the outcome of the trial because of the strength of the physical evidence. Senior Judge John Foradora in March 2012 ruled that “the jury’s verdict was worthy of every confidence” because of the weight of the remaining testimony, and ruled against Weiss’ request for a new trial.
However, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Hornak ruled in August 2018 that Weiss had been deprived of his 14th Amendment right to due process because the jurors could not properly weigh the credibility of the inmate testimony without knowledge of Robinette’s assistance.
“Prosecutorial misconduct resulted in a fundamentally unfair trial,” Hornak wrote. He struck down the conviction and returned the case to Indiana County Common Pleas Court, where Judge Thomas Bianco has for two years weighed whether to release Weiss or schedule a retrial.
Attorney Taylor Johnson was appointed in late 2018 to defend Weiss in place of the Federal Defenders Office of Philadelphia, which had represented Weiss through appeals in the federal court system and in 2014 earned the dismissal of the death penalty.
Johnson promptly called for dismissal of the charges because of the double jeopardy prohibition against trying a defendant twice for a single offense.
Bianco called Robinette in January 2019 to testify of the relationship between the prosecution and the informants, and to explain his thinking in not disclosing that to the jury. In an 11-page opinion delivered three months later, Bianco cited Robinette’s rationale — including the explanation Robinette gave in a similar hearing in 2007 — and drew from the Foradora and Hornak rulings to say that Weiss should have a new trial.
Because Hornak had not been asked to consider the double-jeopardy issue in the ruling on prosecutorial misconduct, Bianco said, the federal court “(gave) the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania an opportunity to commence a new trial. This remedy was correctly and narrowly tailored to give the state court the opportunity ‘to fulfill its constitutional obligation.’ That is precisely what this court intends to do.”
Johnson soon appealed the decision to Pennsylvania Superior Court.
While the case was pending, the state Supreme Court issued the new opinion that mere reckless conduct, a lower standard than intentional misconduct, could be a basis for establishing double jeopardy and preventing a retrial.
Instead of analyzing Johnson’s appeal, Superior Court returned the case to Indiana County Court and directed Bianco to rethink his opinion based on the new precedent.
At a status conference March 29, Bianco directed Deputy Attorney General Gregory Simatic, the fourth deputy A.G. to prosecute the case, and Johnson to write arguments on their positions with the new Supreme Court ruling in mind.
Johnson and Simatic face May 3 deadlines to turn in their papers, then have until May 17 to respond to each other’s positions on the case.
Bianco then would be at the same position he was in early 2019 — ruling on whether Robinette’s 1997 courtroom gaffe meets the new test for depriving Weiss of a fair trial and in turn be grounds for double jeopardy protection against retrial.
Weiss, 72, remains in Indiana County Jail and will for the foreseeable future.
Given the pursuit of justice in Bruzda’s murder, which is nearing 36 years since an original murder charge against Weiss was withdrawn because of the antiquated spousal immunity principle, another appeal of any opinion from Bianco would not be unexpected.