Judge drops arson charges from church fire

| March 2, 2010

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Arson charges against a Tyrone man accused of attempting to burn down a United Methodist church nearly five years ago have been dismissed by a Blair County judge because of a lack of a speedy trial.

The case is unusual because the suspect, now 20 years old, was charged as a juvenile. Juvenile court, unlike adult court, has no specific time periods in which cases must be tried.

"Looking at this logically, we ask ourselves if we were to allow this case to go forward, under what circumstances would we ever find a juvenile's speedy trial rights violated?" Judge Hiram A. Carpenter wrote in a six-page opinion issued Monday.

Carpenter said a 1999 Superior Court decision found that juvenile court must be "fundamentally fair" in protecting a juvenile's constitutional rights, including the right to a speedy trial.

The defense attorney, J. Kirk Kling of Altoona, filed the request to dismiss the charges on Feb. 5, 2009. The hearing on Kling's petition was held 44 months after the Tyrone teenager was charged, Carpenter said.

The delay is so great that the independent memory of events by witnesses and even the ability of the youth to gather evidence on his own behalf "is inevitably and unalterably compromised," the opinion states.

Kling was not available for comment late Monday.

Carpenter, who has been a Blair County judge for 21 years, said he has found Blair's juvenile system is "extremely well-run, prompt and protective of both juveniles and the communities." He said the case involving the fire at the Christ United Methodist Church in Tyrone was in "stark contrast" to the norm.

After the criminal charges were filed in 2005, the Blair County juvenile probation office requested the suspect be certified to adult court, but the request was denied by a visiting judge.

Since then, Carpenter stated, "the case has languished."

Fingerprints at the scene could not be identified, the ruling states. Blood evidence was collected from the church carpet and a Bible, but a sample of the suspect's blood was not taken until two years after the fire.

The juvenile's blood was sent to a lab for analysis, but the comparison samples from the church could not be located, Carpenter stated. Shortly before the hearing on the speedy trial petition, the missing samples were found in the Tyrone police department's evidence locker.

Speaking of a possible trial in the case, Carpenter stated, "Simply put, the time has passed."

Derek Elensky, Blair County's current assistant district attorney in charge of juvenile cases, said he doesn't know if Carpenter's decision will be appealed.

The church was repaired after the $1 million fire and reopened on Easter Sunday in 2007.

 

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