CLEARFIELD – Testimony in an appeal hearing for a death row inmate was heard in Clearfield County Court last week.
Daniel L. Crispell, 43, was convicted of murder, kidnapping, robbery and related charges in June of 1990 and given the death penalty. The charges stem from an October of 1989 incident in which Crispell and Christopher Weatherill abducted Ella M. Brown, 48, at the DuBois Mall. Her body was found a day later in Sandy Township about four miles north of DuBois. She had been stabbed to death. Crispell and Weatherill fled the area and were taken into custody in Arizona.
Crispell, who was scheduled to be executed on Oct. 19, 2011, was granted a stay of execution in September of 2011. This is in effect until the conclusion of the proceedings on his appeal, according to court documents. Weatherill, who is serving a life sentence in the state prison system, was convicted of second-degree murder, kidnapping and robbery in August of 1990.
On March 31, the first day of the hearing, testimony came from F. Cortez “Chip” Bell III, the current Clearfield County Court Administrator, who was the Chief Public Defender in 1990 and represented Crispell. During questioning by Victor Abreu, assistant defender of the Federal Community Defenders, Bell explained that Crispell maintained that he was innocent of the murder, and this was why he did not pursue an insanity defense. Abrue continued to provide documents, asking whether Bell was aware of them although the items were not directly related to the case but instead to Crispell’s health and mental state.
While on the stand the second day, Bell commented that he had only a few months to prepare Crispell’s defense while the appeal team has had years and financial resources not available to him. He stated that they were “grasping at straws in an attempt to get him out of the death penalty.”
A complication of the hearing is that most of the original public defender files from the case are missing. A few years ago the information was given to another attorney who was working on an appeal, according to Bell. At the time of the trial, Bell said there were separate files for the penalty phase, a psychological file, a juvenile file, disciplinary files, school records, a drug/alcohol file and certifications. When the file was eventually returned in December of 2011, it was only a few inches thick, including 32 pages of notes and was largely transcripts from court proceedings.
Testimony on the third day came from Clearfield County President Judge Fredric J. Ammerman, who was the district attorney who prosecuted Crispell. Ammerman was originally subpoenaed by the defenders to testify but was actually called to testify Wednesday by the commonwealth. His testimony helped fill in some of the gaps caused by the missing files.
Ammerman said he had attended a seminar in Harrisburg on how to handle death penalty cases in 1988 or 1989. One of the things he learned was how important it was to give information to the defense. He decided that was good advice and his office always provided all information as a rule.
“That’s how I know anything in my file was given to them,” he testified.
William Stoycos, senior deputy attorney general, who is representing the commonwealth questioned Ammerman about Michael Rebo, a fellow inmate who claimed to have heard Weatherill confess to the murder. Rebo also met Crispell at the jail and told him what he had heard. Crispell said he would tell his attorney about this, but that was the last heard of it. A police report on the incident is dated June 30, 1990. The verdict in Crispell’s trial was reached on June 22, 1990.
Ammerman said he didn’t consider Rebo credible and he didn’t use him as a witness in Weatherill’s trial. He couldn’t remember specifically why he didn’t think him credible but stated, “I can’t put someone on the stand I don’t believe.”
Sentencing orders for Rebo were entered into evidence. He was sentenced in two cases for a total of 15 counts of forgery in 1990.
Ammerman reiterated that if he had this information, he would have given it to Crispell’s defense team and discussed it with them.
One of the issues claimed in the PCRA is that Crispell’s attorney was ineffective for the way he handled another inmate witness, Donald Skinner, who testified in the trial that Crispell told him that he had killed the victim.
Ammerman was asked to respond to allegations that Skinner had been placed in Crispell’s jail cell in an attempt to get information from him.
Ammerman denied this and said he never heard of Skinner until he made statements at the Jefferson County Jail. He also confirmed that Skinner received no benefit or special treatment in exchange for his testimony.
“We had no deal with him. He was just to come in and tell the truth,” Ammerman stated. He then confirmed that if Skinner was going to testify in the trial that he would have gotten Skinner’s complete criminal history and shared it with the defense team.
“I was very thorough because this was an important case.”
On the second day, Jennie Murray testified about her friendship with Crispell and an encounter she had with him and Weatherill prior to the murder. She saw Weatherill with the knife and claimed it belonged to him.
Ammerman was asked if she had contacted him. He said she had contacted him after the trial concluded because she had information she felt was relevant to the case. He didn’t think she was credible enough to use as a witness in Weatherill’s trial.
During Murray’s testimony, she recalled her friendship with Crispell and how he changed after his relationship with his first real girlfriend ended. His demeanor was different and the “preppy” teen was wearing jeans and not showering, she said.
“He looked like a dirt bag,” she said.
At the end of September of 1989, she ran into him at the Bloomsburg Fair. Weatherill was with him. They both smelled of alcohol.
About a month later, they came to her home and Crispell “was in a panic,” saying he needed money and a car to get out of town. He said he wanted to go west, possibly to California. While there, she saw Weatherill put a knife in his boot.
After she heard of the murder, she contacted police to inform them of the incident, but no one ever got back to her about it.
“I’ve been waiting 25 years to tell someone what I knew,” Murray said.
She also recalled Crispell’s relationship with his father who hit him “if he didn’t abide by his rules.”
David Crispell Sr. also testified on the second day. He became emotional as he reviewed his son’s life prior to the crime. He admitted he disciplined him by “spanking his bottom with my hand.” When he was older, he would use a belt or stick to strike him.
He explained that he disciplined Daniel more than his other children, because “he aggravated me more than the other children did.”
He went over Daniel’s medical problems, which included fevers as a child, a car accident from which he received a head injury and a rape by two men while he was in Florida.
David Crispell said he did talk to the defense attorneys but said they did not ask him about these things or his family history.
The hearing concluded after a fourth day of testimony on Thursday. The hearing will continue for a second week with testimony from mental health and other experts in June. Senior Judge John B. Leete of Potter County is presiding over this case.