Collar bomb trial set to begin in Erie

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More than seven years after a ghastly crime in Erie caught the world's attention, the final defendant in the case is scheduled to go on trial this week.

Jury selection in the case against Marjorie Diehl Armstrong, 61, accused of being the mastermind in a plot in which a man wearing a collar bomb was used in a bank robbery, begins Tuesday.

It is unclear how long jury selection will take.

Ms. Armstrong is charged with criminal conspiracy, bank robbery and using a firearm in relation to a violent crime, since the man wearing the bomb died when it exploded.

The case will be tried by U.S. District Judge Sean J. McLaughlin in Erie.

On Aug. 28, 2003, Brian Wells entered a PNC Bank branch on Peach Street in Erie. After taking a lollipop from a teller station, he handed an employee a note.

He was carrying a gun disguised as a walking cane and showed the teller that he was wearing a bomb that was locked around his neck and demanded money.

According to court documents, he received $8,702 and then fled from the bank, but he was stopped by State Police nearby. While officers waited for the bomb squad to arrive, the device exploded, and Mr. Wells was killed.

For years, the case was left open, and there was speculation whether Mr. Wells was a willing participant or a victim who was forced to commit the bank robbery.

In July 2007, a federal indictment alleging that Mr. Wells was involved in the conspiracy was handed up by the grand jury. It named as defendants Ms. Armstrong, as well as Kenneth Barnes.

A third man, William Rothstein, was named as a participant in the case, but he died from natural causes before the indictment was brought.

According to the charges in the indictment, Ms. Armstrong was the leader of the plot, planning it to get money to pay Mr. Barnes to kill her father.

Before the federal indictment was filed, Ms. Armstrong pleaded guilty but mentally ill to third-degree murder in January 2005 after Mr. Rothstein went to police and told them the woman had killed her former boyfriend, and that the man's body was in his freezer.

The government alleges she killed James Roden earlier in August 2003 to prevent him from revealing the bank robbery plot.

She was sentenced to seven to 20 years in prison in that case.

In December 2008, Mr. Barnes, who had pleaded guilty to conspiracy and the firearms charge, was sentenced to 45 years in prison.

He is expected to testify against Ms. Armstrong.

Her case has been delayed several times because the court had to make a determination on her mental competency, and she was diagnosed with cancer.

The defense filed a motion asking that a jury panel from outside the Erie district be brought in to hear the case based on pretrial publicity.

But Judge McLaughlin, in a 32-page opinion issued late last month, denied the motion.

Even though there have been more than 300 articles published in the Erie Times News -- the newspaper of record in that community -- the judge found that the stories were not overly prejudicial.

"While much of the factual information portrays the defendant in an unflattering light, the coverage as a whole has not been overtly hostile or slanted in favor of the government, and it has frequently served as a means for the defendant to voice her own position," Judge McLaughlin wrote. "Moreover, while the news coverage of this case has been sustained over the years, it has become considerably less intense and probing over time."

Even so, the judge said he will revisit the issue if, during jury selection, it becomes evident that the "pretrial publicity has compromised the court's ability to empanel a fair and impartial jury."

Paula Reed Ward: or 412-263-2620.


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