Thursday, September 1, 2011
9/1/2011 3:33 AM
Death row inmate's claims of an unfair trial dismissed
By Linda Metz, Staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Washington County Judge Paul Pozonsky dismissed claims Wednesday by a death row inmate convicted of starving her 7-year-old daughter to death in 1998 that she did not receive a fair trial.
Michelle Tharp, now 42, claims she was wrongfully convicted of killing her daughter because of mitigating circumstances that were not presented to the jury at trial.
Tharp's attorney, Assistant Federal Defender Jim McHugh of the Federal Community Defender Office, filed the petition for post conviction relief nearly two years ago, and in April 2010, an evidentiary hearing was conducted.
During the hearing, Tharp's attorney claimed that she had been wrongfully convicted of the crime because of circumstances that were not presented to the jury. Those issues include psychological evidence that Tharp is mentally unstable because of her low IQ and traumatic upbringing, and that then-district attorney John C. Pettit cut deals with people, including Tharp's ex-boyfriend, Doug Bittinger, for false testimony that led to her conviction.
The petition also contended that Tharp could not be executed because she has a serious mental illness and that Tharp's sentence was disproportionate punishment because no person in the state has previously been sentenced to death for the starvation death of a child.
Over the course of the next 11/2 years, several more hearings were held, and attorneys were given until June 20 to submit their final legal memoranda.
In all, nearly 4,000 pages of exhibits and appendices were submitted and analyzed by the judge before he rendered his decision.
In his opinion, Pozonsky wrote the "defendant's counsel has in essence thrown in the proverbial 'kitchen sink.'
"It is clear from the lengthy PCRA petition, the legal briefs submitted to the court, the testimony of the evidentiary hearings and the voluminous exhibits submitted by defendant's attorneys that their goal in representing defendant is not simply zealous representation of their client. Instead, they are litigating this case as part of a larger global cause: to impede and sabotage the death penalty in Pennsylvania," he added.
Tharp and Bittinger both were charged with first-degree murder in the starvation death of Tharp's daughter, Tausha Lee Lanham, who weighed less than 12 pounds at the time of her death.
The couple was charged a few days after they falsely reported that the child had been abducted from a mall in Steubenville, Ohio, April 18, 1998. The couple had dumped the child's body along a road in Follansbee, W.Va.
After Tharp's trial, Bittinger was sentenced on the lesser charge to 15 to 30 years in prison after pleading guilty to criminal homicide, child endangerment and abuse of a corpse. Prosecutors said Bittinger's crime was not preventing the abuse by his girlfriend.
A death warrant was signed by Gov. Ed Rendell in 2004, but Tharp's execution was stayed in federal court pending further appeals, even though the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear her request for a new trial.
The stay of execution will remain in place indefinitely as Tharp continues her appeal process.