Defense contends accused did not intend to kill his wife

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There’s no question that a Westmoreland County man accused of strangling his wife in 2012 did kill her, but it will be up to a jury to decide whether the death was intentional, his defense attorney said Monday.

David Stahl, 44, is on trial for the first-degree murder of Rebecca Stahl, 37, a math teacher at Derry Area Middle School.

Mr. Stahl strangled his wife after an altercation at their Hempfield home, but her death was not premeditated, public defender Donna McClelland said Monday. Because of that, she asked jurors to consider charges of third-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter.

“He is responsible for Rebecca Stahl's death,” she said in her opening statement. “The question is, did he intend to kill her when it happened?”

Prosecutors contend that Mr. Stahl, whom they say has a history of violence toward his wife, choked her to death in the early morning hours of Feb. 19 then left her body in a patch of shrubs near the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport. She was discovered several days later.

District Attorney John Peck said Mr. Stahl wrapped his wife’s body in a U-Haul blanket and “discarded her as trash.”

The defense told jurors that Mr. Stahl and his wife had multiple arguments Feb. 18, including when he came home that evening from a day of drinking to find her smoking marijuana.

When Mr. Stahl arrived, his wife confronted him about his drinking. Mr. Stahl was concerned about his wife smoking while taking medication prescribed to her after a recent hysterectomy, the defense said.

A short time later, Mrs. Stahl hit her husband with some kind of chrome part and, at one point, grabbed a kitchen knife as the fight escalated, Ms. McClelland told jurors.

As the struggle ensued, they tripped over their two dogs and fell to the floor. Ms. McClelland said as they struggled on the ground, with Mrs. Stahl atop her husband, Mr. Stahl strangled her.

The defense said Mr. Stahl’s actions after his wife’s death, including lying to police and hiding any possible evidence, reflect “someone who panicked.”

Police found Mrs. Stahl’s body after help from the state game commission led them to a former nursery near the airport. There, they found shrubs with leaves that matched those on the bottom of Mr. Stahl’s muddy boots.

Also Monday, Mrs. Stahl’s friend and former colleague testified that the two had lunch Feb. 17 and that Mrs. Stahl still had trouble getting around as a result of her surgery and struggled to climb stairs.

Common Pleas Judge Rita Hathaway of Westmoreland County has set aside all week for the case.

Michael Majchrowicz: or on Twitter @mjmajchrowicz. Molly Born: or 412-263-1944. First Published June 23, 2014 12:00 AM

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