Full-Day DeSisti Hearing Nets No Immediate Results
By Rick Hiduk
After a full day of testimony by law enforcement officials and arguments between deputies of the state’s district attorney’s office and the legal defense team for Joseph DeSisti, Judge Maureen T. Beirne did not issue any decisions on several motions made by attorney Arthur Donato on DeSisti’s behalf.
DeSisti, who has been charged with the 2006 murders of David and Carol Keeffe, was led into the room after the judge arrived. He was unshaven and appeared somewhat disoriented as he was led to his seat, making little if any eye contact with family members who were seated in the second row behind him. In fact, there was little conversation between the defendant and members of his defense team as he listened to several hours of testimony and cross-examination of about a dozen police officers and special investigators from both Pennsylvania and New York states.
Prosecuting attorney John Flannery seemed focused on affirming that DeSisti was never held against his will nor were statements coerced from him during the early stages of the investigation prior to DeSisti’s arrest in December 2010. He asked each officer if DeSisti was ever handcuffed at any point during the interviews and whether or not he was free to leave during the course of any of the conversation between him and investigators.
Pennsylvania state trooper Jeffrey Paul Sredenschek was the first to take the witness stand, from which he described a meeting of family members that was called at the home of David Keeffe’s daughter, Michelle Witmer, a few days after the killings in November. Eight family members, including DeSisti, had been asked to participate in the discussion, which was geared toward discovering leads for the investigation, according to Sredenschek. The group sat in a semi-circle in the living room of the residence and answered questions from the investigating officer. When Sredenschek asked DeSisti what he might be able to add that would assist police with the investigation, he allegedly replied that he had nothing to add as he had not had any contact with them in some time.
Sredenschek said that his conversation with DeSisti at the Witmer home lasted less than one minute and that he had no further contact with the defendant until Dec. 5, 2006. At that time, Sredenschek and Athens Township Police Officer John Fedorchak visited Joseph and his wife, Nancy DeSisti, at their place of business in Sayre. “We asked if we could talk to them, and they invited us in,” Sredenschek recalled. Topics of the conversation that day included what types of animals Joseph was hunting and trapping at that time, which included coyotes, red and gray foxes, and muskrats.
Fedorchak was also questioned by the lawyers and corroborated Sredenschek’s testimony that much of the 15-minute conversation centered on DeSisti’s trapping activities. Fedorchak referred to the couple as cooperative and congenial.
The patrolmen came and went from the courtroom, unable to hear the testimonies before them. Donato stepped up his interrogation of the law enforcement official when the topic of the search warrants and the combing of DeSisti’s Waverly, NY, residence by PA and NY state police officers came into play. The occasion marked the first time that the movement of the DeSistis was limited, which the officers indicated was standard procedure during a search.
In fact, DeSisti was at the Athens Township building with officers there, filling out a questionnaire as the troopers in Waverly were preparing to search his residence, an aspect of the timeline of that day’s events that did not sit well with Donato. He questioned the times noted on various documents as being inconsistent with proper protocol in search situations and suggested that the interview at the township building was a ruse to keep DeSisti out of the way while investigators gained approval for the search. Donato also later insisted that the warrant was not properly executed according to the laws of New York state and that all evidence seized should have first been taken back to Barton, NY, where it had been issued. Instead, those on the witness stand confirmed repeatedly that the evidence that was collected and catalogued had been transferred from NY to PA state police.
In addition to suggesting to Judge Beirne that, because the investigators had broken protocol, the evidence seized was inadmissible, Donato declared much of the evidence, including guns, ammunition, camouflage clothing with blood stains, and boots bearing similar treads to a bloody footprint found at the crime scene as circumstantial because DeSisti had been an avid hunter and trapper for years and these items were common to the sport and could be found in many homes in the area.
Donato also sought decisions on earlier motions to disallow comments made to police by DeSisti up to the time of his arrest in December. Donato also declared as inadmissible statements made by family members during a grand jury hearing concerning statements attributed to Carol Keeffe prior to her death about a property dispute between the Keeffes and the DeSistis, who are related. The prosecution argued that such matters should have been taken up at that time with the presiding judge.
Although Donato had previously also requested a change of venue for the hearing, he suggested postponing that decision until the prosecution had an opportunity to interview Dr. Arthur Patterson of the trial-consulting firm DecisionQuest. Patterson, who has assessed the situation and has indicated that a change of venue to ensure a fair trial is warranted, was not available for the July 18 hearing.