When closing arguments ended Friday in a Westmoreland County courtroom, the all-female jury was left to decide: When David Stahl, 44, strangled his wife, was it an act of passion or purpose?
After deliberating for five hours Friday evening, jurors found Mr. Stahl guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Rebecca Stahl, a school teacher. The conviction carries a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole.
During closing arguments on Friday in front of Common Pleas Judge Rita Hathaway, public defender Donna McClelland contended her client, Mr. Stahl, was indeed responsible for Mrs. Stahl‘s death, but it was inadvertent and she asked that the jury consider charges of third-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter.
Ms. McClelland spoke of a contentious marriage between the Stahls -- one that "shouldn't have happened."
"You don't have to like David Stahl," she said in her closing. "You don't have to respect David Stahl, but he deserves a fair trial."
Ms. McClelland maintained earlier in the trial that Mr. Stahl’s actions after his wife’s death, including lying to police and hiding any possible evidence, reflect “someone who panicked.”
Ms. Stahl's younger sister, Kelly Beltz, sat in the courtroom and wept as the details of her sister's death were rehashed during closing arguments.
Nearby, her older brother, Tom Anderson, 43, sat in contemplation.
He thought of Mrs. Stahl -- or "Becky" as the family called her -- and the time he punched a boy at the bus stop for pushing his sister to the ground.
He thought of her wedding, which he refused to attend. It was necessary if he was going to take a stance against this relationship, he said.
After Mrs. Stahl went missing, Mr. Anderson said, his sights fell on Mr. Stahl. The first place Mr. Anderson checked were local dumpsters, he said.
District attorney John Peck contended Mr. Stahl intended to kill his wife when he choked her and asked jurors to make a decision based "on their knowledge of humanity."
"Let's look at the defendant's actions and consider that," he said. "Everything we do is for a reason."
This wasn't a mistake, Mr. Peck added, "this was an intentional killing."
Mr. Stahl spent most of Feb. 17 drinking at area bars, according to testimony. The defense told jurors Monday that Mr. Stahl and his wife had multiple arguments during the day, including when he returned to their Hempfield home that evening 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, according to testimony, 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.
With the trial concluded and her family returning home, Ms. Beltz said, she'll be reminded that her sister will never blow out another birthday candle or open a gift at Christmas.
"From here, we try to carry her with us."
First Published June 27, 2014 12:00 AM