A gunshot to the back of the head on a chilly, rainy morning in October 1997 ended Palmerton drug dealer Tyrone Hill's life.
By spring of 1999, the shooter, Myles Ramzee, and the three men who helped carry out the murder Kaquwan Milligan; Dennis Boney and Cetewayo Frails all of Brooklyn, N. Y., had been tried, convicted of homicide and sentenced to life terms for the murder.
It cost Carbon County more than $100,000 to pay the public defenders who represented the men during their trials, says District Attorney Gary Dobias.
Now, 14 years later, the county continues to spend thousands of dollars and countless hours on Ramzee, Milligan, Boney and Frails, who continue to file appeal after appeal. Among the grounds for the appeals, the men argued, were that they were unfairly tried by an all-white jury, and that their lawyers were ineffective.
All of the appeals have been denied, but they still keep coming.
"It's a drain of time, resources and money that could be allocated to other criminal justice matters," Dobias says.
Attempts to contact Ramzee and Milligan through their Facebook pages were unsuccessful.
Ramzee is serving his time at the state correctional institution at Dallas; Milligan is at SCI Huntingdon; Frails is at SCI Smithfield, and Boney is at SCI Frackville.
DRUGS AND GUNS
The murder plot unfolded when Verna Russman, who was described by authorities as a "drug mule" for the four because she delivered the drugs for the crack business run by Ramzee, with Frails, Boney and Milligan helping, overheard a robbery plot targetting Hill.
Russman and Ramzee parted ways, and Russman began selling crack for Ramzee's competitor, Terrell Owens. Hill took over Owens' drug trade the day before his murder, when Owens left the state for his father's funeral.
The turf war stakes were high: According to court testimony, Hill was cutting into the $10,000-a-week crack business operated in Carbon and Monroe counties by Ramzee, Russman, Frails, Milligan and Boney.
The night before the murder, Russman had overheard Ramzee, Milligan, Frails and Boney at a Monroe County home planning to rob Hill of cash and drugs, she testified at a Jan. 14, 1999, preliminary hearing. Russman, also charged with homicide, was to be the prosecution's main witness in the cases against the four men.
According to Russman's testimony, on the morning of the murder she picked up Ramzee in Monroe County and, with Frails and Milligan following, drove to Hill's apartment. Boney had spent the night there. Within minutes after they arrived, Ramzee shot Hill, and Frails pushed Hill's body backward. Then, Russman, Ramzee and Frails looked through Hill's pockets for drugs. Later, Ramzee took her back to Monroe County; the others fled.
Milligan's, Frails' and Boney's joint trial, before Judge Richard W. Webb, began on April 13, 1999. Ramzee, whose trial was separate because he alone faced the death penalty, had been tried in March.
Ramzee was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life; Frails, Boney and Milligan were convicted of second degree murder, and also sentenced to life; Russman pleaded guilty to third-degree murder as part of a plea agreement in which first and second degree counts were dropped, and he was sentenced to 10 years.
APPEAL UPON APPEAL
In the Palmerton case, which cost the county more than $100,000 for defense costs alone, the challenges began immediately.
All four filed post trial motions in county court, which were dismissed by Judge Webb in September 1999. All four then filed direct appeals to the state Superior Court, which were dismissed in December 2000.
Their appeals to the state Supreme Court were dismissed in June 2001. Milligan also filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, which was dismissed in November 2001.
Those, Dobias said, were direct appeals. Each of the four also filed numerous "collateral" appeals under the Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA)
Ramzee filed six PCRA appeals, the first in 2001, and the sixth in May 2012. The first five were dismissed in county court; the one filed in May, upheld by an appellate court, is still pending in county court.
Frails filed four PCRA appeals, the first in 2002; the last in 2010. All were dismissed at all levels.
Boney filed four PCRAs, the first in 2002, and the last in May 2012. The first three were dismissed at the county level. He then appealed to to Superior and Supreme courts, which dismissed them. The appeal filed in May 2012 was dismissed in September. Currently, there is an appeal in Superior Court.
Milligan filed three PCRA appeals, the first in 2002 and the last in December 2012. Last month, Carbon County Judge Steven Serfass on June 24 dismissed the last one. Milligan has 30 days to appeal that ruling to state court.
In addition, three of the four have filed habeas corpus petitions in federal court.
Ramzee filed his in May of 2005. The petition was dismissed in December 2006. He appealed that to the U.S. Third Circuit Court, which dismissed it in July 2007.
Frails filed his petition in September 2010; it is still pending in federal District Court.
Milligan filed his petition in November 2005. It was dismissed by federal District Court in June 2010. He appealed to U.S. Third Circuit Court, which dismissed it in December 2010. Milligan then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which dismissed it on April 2011.
STEMMING THE TIDE?
The defendants in the Palmerton case are among many who continue to file appeals years after being found guilty, and they have every right to challenge the verdicts, Dobias says.
But most are also unable to pay for the appeals.
"Indigent defendants have a federal constitutional right to assistance of counsel on direct appeal. This work is done by public defenders or private attorneys appointed by the court," says Penn State/Dickenson School of Law Professor Thomas M. Place.
"In both cases, the county pays for the representation. In appeals from the denial of post-conviction relief, state law provides that an indigent defendant is entitled to court appointed counsel on his first post-conviction petition. If relief is denied by the trial court, the lawyer appointed will represent the defendant on appeal," he says.
"The county is responsible for the cost of counsel. Defendants frequently file second or third post-conviction petitions. As a general rule, there is no right to counsel for second or subsequent petitions. In most cases, these petitions are dismissed by the trial court. If the petition is dismissed, the defendant may file an appeal without the assistance of counsel. Again, as a general rule, the district attorney will seek to have the appeal dismissed with the result that the county will incur additional costs," Place says.
There are no limits on how many PCRA appeals defendants can file, Dobias says. "There is a limit on when they can be filed, but there can be exceptions to that, and the defendants just allege the exception, whether it's applicable or not."
He also says that some appeals address the same issues again and again, with the petitions tweaked just a bit for each filing.
"But they are still raised and dealt with and addressed, and they are really the same issues. And that is, again in my opinion, a waste of resources, time and money," he says.
While Dobias recognizes the right to appeals, he believes change is needed.
"I just think the current system is being abused," he says. "It seems to me that there should be more careful scrutiny of petitions, and getting them thrown out earlier, and not allowing them to appeal."