Kevin Siehl hopes new evidence will help him prove that he did not kill his estranged wife
By Sara Bauknecht
May 5, 2011
Now — almost 20 years later — the same latent print that helped usher Siehl to prison for a crime he maintains he did not commit may be his hope for winning a new trial because the person who tied him to it has been deemed a fraud, causing an appeals court to order another look at the case.
In an opinion filed in March 2009, a three-judge panel of the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered an evidentiary hearing — tentatively slated for fall 2011 — after concluding that Siehl’s lawyers should have done more to prove the fingerprint evidence was bogus.
“While trial counsel cross-examined the Commonwealth’s forensic evidence witnesses, they did so without the advice of a forensic expert, and the defense countered with no forensic evidence of its own,” they wrote in the opinion.
To Siehl, that is the latest crux in the matter that has seen evidence mount that suggest his pleas of innocence may have merit. At the top of that list is the discovery that the fingerprint testimony for the prosecution in Siehl’s trial came from a phony expert whose resume was a web of falsities.
“The print they said was mine on the showerhead, turned out not to be mine,” Siehl wrote in a February 2011 letter to the Innocence Institute of Point Park University.
Shortly before the murder, Siehl had been released from prison for theft, according to a December 2008 Justice Magazine article (PDF). The last time Siehl and the victim, Christine Siehl, were together was just hours before the stabbing. After he picked her up at work at Mercy Hospital in Johnstown, Pa., they went back to her apartment; they drove to Pyramid’s Lounge to cash a check; and then they stayed at a local bar, Simo’s, until after 1 a.m.
Christine then dropped him off at about 1:30 a.m. at his parents’ house, where he stayed until morning.
After dropping Kevin Siehl off, Christine was to meet another man, Frank Wills, with whom she had been having a relationship. But Wills said she never showed up. She was found the next morning with at least 20 stab wounds dead in a bathtub of running water.
Wills, as well as Siehl’s nephew Robert Prebehalla, have been eyed with suspicion at times throughout the history of Siehl’s case.
Siehl’s current attorney, Lisa Freeland, the federal public defender of Western Pennsylvania, did not comment. No one from the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office, which now has the case, could be reached for comment.
The federal evidentiary hearing is a silver lining for Siehl in a cloud of other recent appeal denials.
In August 2010, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania ruled not to move forward with DNA testing of additional items from the crime scene that Siehl still argues may help him prove his innocence.
Siehl, represented in this appeal by Craig Cooley, an attorney at the Innocence Project in New York City, wrote in a February 2011 letter to the Innocence Institute that he felt the appeals court erred when it decided in October 2008 not to order DNA tests of a knife, a green washcloth and a cigarette butt found at the victim’s apartment. Under Pennsylvania’s post conviction DNA law, a judge is not allowed to order the tests unless he/she believes the result will exonerate a convict.
The state’s superior court affirmed the PCRA court’s opinion that finding another person’s DNA on these items would not be enough to shift the guilt from Siehl. Instead, the court ruled, the evidence would only show that someone else was at the victim’s apartment and used these items at some unknown point in time before the murder.
“I believe the decision is wrong, because it should show actual innocence, not alone though, but with the other evidence,” Siehl wrote in the February 2011 letter.
But Siehl will not appeal the decision, Cooley wrote in an e-mail. He also will likely not be permitted to further argue for the testing of these items at the November hearing, Siehl said in a February 2011 phone interview.
After two decades of fighting for his freedom, Siehl tries to remain optimistic.
“My hopes and plans are that now that my case is in the federal courts, that my innocence will be brought forth at the evidentiary hearing,” Siehl wrote in the February 2011 letter.
Siehl remains at SCI Huntingdon serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Sara Bauknecht is a graduate assistant in the School of Communication at Point Park University. She can be reached at inn_inst@PointPark.edu or 412-765-3164.