Lawyer says client's Pittsburgh-area murder trial transcripts were altered

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An accusation that a judge tampered with trial transcripts is now the centerpiece of a petition in federal court seeking a retrial in the 2009 homicides of retired Carroll police Chief Howard Springer and his wife, Nancy Springer.

Gerald Szakal, 30, of Rostraver, is serving a double life sentence for second-degree murder and other crimes. His attorney, Noah Geary, filed the habeas corpus petition in U.S. District Court, claiming that Szakal's due process rights were violated by Washington County Common Pleas President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca at his 2009 trial, and after that as a result of alleged changes in the transcript.

Mr. Geary wrote that after jurors asked whether they had to reach unanimity, and the judge responded with only the word, "Yes," he objected, saying that answer was incomplete. That objection "was removed from the transcript altogether," he wrote.

According to the petition, a prosecution witness spoke with jurors on the courthouse steps during a lunch recess, spurring Mr. Geary to move for a mistrial. That motion was reflected in the transcript, but 50 pages after the point at which it was actually made, according to the petition.

Another exchange also was moved, according to the petition.

Mr. Geary wrote in the petition that a court reporter later suggested that he demand the trial transcript, and the backup audio, but that the judge prevented him from receiving the recording. That court reporter, Toni DiNardo, filed a defamation suit against Mr. Geary in 2011 after his allegations became public, but it was dismissed in February 2012.

Mr. Geary took his demand for the audio to the state Superior Court, but that court denied it and affirmed Judge O'Dell Seneca's conviction. The judge in 2011 issued a supplemental opinion indicating that the transcript and the recording of the trial contain "the exact same language" and are "in complete harmony with one another."

Mr. Geary said he wants all of the recordings of the trial, all versions of the transcript and access to the court reporter's computer for a forensic analysis.

"If what I'm alleging is true, and it is true, then this is serious, serious misconduct by the trial judge, which would compel her immediate and permanent removal from the bench," he said in an interview.

The judge's law clerk, Josh Hausman, said she "is not permitted to make any comment on any case filed in any court" under the judiciary's rules.

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Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or on Twitter @richelord.


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