Three men accused in the 2012 death of Washington & Jefferson College football player Tim McNerney agreed to plead guilty Tuesday to a general count of homicide.
Visiting Common Pleas Judge Edward Borkowski of Allegheny County then handed down third-degree murder verdicts against Eric Wells, 25, of Penn Hills, Adam R. Hankins, 24, of Washington and Troy Lamonte Simmons Jr., 24, of East Pittsburgh during the hearing at the Washington County Courthouse. The men also pleaded guilty to robbery.
All three appeared in court, handcuffed and in orange jumpsuits, and spoke only to address the judge, who made his determination based on his review of the affidavit of probable cause, the preliminary hearing transcript, statements made by the defendants and the coroner's report.
"There was a factual and legal basis for second-degree murder," Judge Borkowski said. "But based on the totality of the circumstances and facts of the case, the more appropriate verdict is third-degree."
Had the defendants been found guilty of second-degree murder, they would have faced a mandatory prison term of life without parole. Under Pennsylvania law, the maximum possible sentence for third-degree is 20 to 40 years.
The three will remain in the Washington County jail until sentencing Aug. 25. They were originally charged with homicide, robbery, theft and conspiracy, and Mr. Simmons and Mr. Hankins also each faced a count of aggravated assault.
Jury selection was to start Tuesday for the trial next week.
Attorneys for the men characterized the incident as a chance encounter -- which one described as a "one-punch case" -- and said none intended to kill McNerney, 21, of Butler.
Washington police have said the three intended to rob McNerney and his friend Zachary DeCicco, then 22, of Jefferson Hills as the students walked back to campus after a night of barhopping along Washington's Main Street in the early morning hours of Oct. 4, 2012.
Police said Mr. Wells punched McNerney, and McNerney then fell to the ground and hit his head. Mr. DeCicco ran away to his dorm, where he and his friends called campus security, who contacted Washington city police.
McNerney was found unresponsive a short time later in a corner of an auto repair shop parking lot -- a block from the campus -- and was pronounced dead at Washington Hospital of trauma to the back of his head.
The death rattled family, friends and peers across the region, from his college campus of about 1,400 undergraduates 30 miles south of Pittsburgh, to Knoch High School in Butler County, his alma mater.
Police were led to the men last year through the GPS system on McNerney's stolen iPhone, which revealed that it was near Mr. Hankins' home and a house in McDonald where Mr. Wells was staying.
Court-appointed attorney Jack Puskar said he would have liked to see a manslaughter verdict for his client, Mr. Simmons, but understood the ruling, calling the compromise verdict "fair."
Michael J. DeRiso, attorney for Mr. Wells, said voluntary manslaughter "isn't truly what this case was about. We have a loss of life, and that needs to be respected, and I think the judge did a great job."
Attorney Dennis P. Popojas, representing Mr. Hankins, said after the hearing: "My client wanted to express his relief that the family had some closure here, and he was very willing to take responsibility for this from the get-go."
McNerney's family declined comment.
Molly Born: email@example.com or 412-263-1944. Paula Reed Ward contributed. First Published May 27, 2014 12:42 PM