Bellows-Shaffer seeks 'judgment of acquittal'
The case of Emily Ruth Bellows-Shaffer has taken another turn with the filing of post-sentence motions following her second degree murder conviction last year.
Bradford County Chief Public Defender Helen A. Stolinas is asking the verdict be overturned or, in the alternative, for Bellows-Shaffer to receive a new trial.
She has filed the motions in the Bradford County Court of Common Pleas, but no ruling has been made yet. The motions are before Bradford County Judge Maureen Beirne.
Bellows-Shaffer, 56, with a listed address of Crystal River, Fla., was charged with criminal homicide in the Sept. 15, 2010 death of Roger Hickok's wife, Carol Hickok, at the Hickok residence in Canton Township.
Roger Hickok had an extra-marital affair with Bellows-Shaffer, which resulted in the birth of a son in 1998 and a subsequent custody battle with Bellows-Shaffer in which Roger Hickok won custody.
Bellows-Shaffer told police that she wished to see her son on Sept. 15 and drove to the Hickok residence just before daybreak, and entered it.
According to an affidavit, Bellows-Shaffer told police that Carol Hickok confronted her in the hallway of the residence, and told her she had no right to be there, and they then struggled. Bellows-Shaffer said that she was there to see her son.
Carol Hickok, who was 65 years old, was found face down at the base of an exterior set of stairs.
Last August, Bellows-Shaffer was found guilty of second degree murder, two counts of burglary, and one count of tampering with evidence, according to Stolinas.
In the first motion "for judgment of acquittal," the public defender noted that the defendant, Bellows-Shaffer, is alleging that the evidence was insufficient to establish the first count of burglary at the Hickok home, and, correspondingly, the second degree murder charge.
According to Stolinas, the count of second degree murder requires the Commonwealth to prove that Bellows-Shaffer intended to commit a crime inside the residence at the time she entered the residence.
"The evidence in this case establishes that there was no forcible entry," she wrote. "The initial investigator specifically noted that there were no signs of foul play in his report."
Stolinas noted that on the date of his wife's death, Roger Hickok was asked by police the following question: "Any reason that someone would break into your house in the morning between 4 and 7 a.m. and do harm to" Roger Hickok, Roger Hickok's and Bellows-Shaffer's son, or Carol Hickok?
Stolinas noted that Roger Hickok replied, "Well they couldn't break in cuz (sic) the door was always unlocked."
"At trial, the Commonwealth did not present any evidence of forced entry," Stolinas wrote.
Stolinas continued, "As there is no evidence of forcible entry in this case, the presumption of the intent to commit a crime within the residence does not follow. Therefore, the Commonwealth must present other evidence to establish that intent to commit a crime was present at the time of the entry."
In addition, Stolinas wrote that "the circumstances of the death do not establish that the defendant (Bellows-Shaffer) had the intent to commit a crime prior to entry to the residence."
"The autopsy findings and testimony at trial suggest that the death was due to physical interaction," Stolinas wrote.
"The defendant's blood was found in the residence, and there was additional evidence of a struggle," Stolinas wrote. "While the Commonwealth challenged the defendant's stated reason for entering the residence, there was insufficient evidence of the element of intent to commit a crime."
Stolinas wrote that "the defendant respectfully requests judgment of acquittal on the counts of burglary and second-degree murder."
In the motion for a new trial, Stolinas noted that the defendant, Bellows-Shaffer, filed pretrial motions seeking to exclude certain evidence, including diary entries and portions of her video statement made for the police in July 2011. The public defender wrote that the court granted certain portions of the pretrial motions, but denied the majority of the claims, and "a great deal of the diary and video statement was introduced at trial before the jury."
"The defendant (Bellows-Shaffer) alleges that introduction of the diaries was prejudicial and irrelevant," Stolinas wrote. "The diary entries did not reference the victim (Carol Hickok) and the Commonwealth's purpose at trial was to cast the defendant in a negative light in terms of her personal and financial life. Introduction of the diaries was unfairly prejudicial to the defendant."
Stolinas continued, "the defendant further alleges that introduction of portions of the video statement which included references to her financial condition, and prior incidents with the decedent (Carol Hickok), should not have been admitted at trial and were unfairly prejudicial."
She wrote that "the defendant respectfully requests a new trial following reconsideration of the pretrial rulings."
In another motion, Stolinas challenges the contention that Roger Hickok wasn't home at the time of Carol Hickok's death.
She wrote that "the jury's verdicts on second-degree murder, burglary, and criminal trespass were against the weight of the evidence at trial."
Specifically, she wrote, the Commonwealth presented evidence suggesting that the death of Carol Hickok occurred after Roger Hickok left the home between 4 and 7 a.m. on Sept. 15.
"The coroner (Tom Carman), however, noted that when he arrived at the Hickok home, the decedent (Carol Hickok) was in full rigor mortis at approximately 8 a.m.," Stolinas wrote. "He also testified that the blood on Mrs. Hickok's nightshirt was dry."
She noted that the pathologist who testified at the trial stated that it takes eight to 12 hours for full rigor mortis to set in, and that it sets in more slowly in cold temperatures. She said the temperature was approximately 40 degrees at 8 a.m. on Sept. 15.
"Therefore, considering the physical evidence, Carol Hickok's time of death occurred at midnight or earlier," Stolinas wrote. "According to his testimony, Roger Hickok was present at home from 8 p.m. until leaving for the Pump n Pantry shortly after 4 a.m."
"Therefore, Roger Hickok would have been home at the time of his wife's death," she concluded.
Stolinas wrote that "considering the fact that Mr. Hickok was engaged in an emotional and romantic relationship with the defendant, if Mr. Hickok was at home, it is unlikely that Ms. Shaffer would have committed unauthorized entry into the residence, which is an element of the offenses of criminal trespass, burglary, and second degree murder under these circumstances."
"The jury's decision on these counts was against the weight of the evidence," Stolinas wrote.
In another motion challenging jury instruction, Stolinas wrote that at trial, the court granted the district attorney's request for instruction limiting the jury's consideration of what it deemed to be "self-serving" hearsay.
"The court gave an instruction to the jury indicating that certain portions of the statement were not to be considered as exculpatory evidence," she wrote.
Stolinas stated that Bellows-Shaffer "alleges that the instruction presented was confusing and as a result the jury was unable to consider the context of the statements, thus prejudicing the defendant (Bellows-Shaffer)."
"There was no specific guideline presented to the jury as to which portions it could consider and which portions it could not consider," Stolinas wrote, again noting that "the defendant respectfully requests a new trial."
Regarding Bellows-Shaffer's sentencing, Stolinas said the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole "violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishments," under the circumstances of this case, which she said does not involve an intentional or premeditated murder.
She wrote, "it was violative of the defendant's rights under the Eighth Amendment to be sentenced to a mandatory term of life without parole, without any opportunity for the court to exercise discretion or for the defendant to argue that such a sentence is excessive under the facts and circumstances of the case."
Also, concerning the $25,000 fine imposed on Bellows-Shaffer for the offense of second degree murder, Stolinas wrote that the court did not properly consider Bellows-Shaffer's ability to pay, "as she is indigent and sentenced to life without parole." Bellows-Shaffer is requesting a reduction of the fine.
Bradford County District Attorney Dan Barrett declined comment on the post-sentence motions.
Eric Hrin can be reached at (570) 297-5251; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.