PHILADELPHIA (CN) - A federal judge has vacated the death sentence and first-degree murder conviction of a man who was arrested in connection to a notorious anti-gay hate crime. The judge deferred ruling on the remaining convictions, including on a count of second-degree murder.
Frank Chester was convicted along with Richard Laird in the 1987 slashing death of artist Anthony Milano. At the time, the district attorney for Bucks County, Pa., told reporters that the court's decision to impose the death penalty against both men for an anti-gay crime marked the first one of its kind in the United States.
In addition to vacating part of Chester's conviction, U.S. District Judge C. Darnell Jones II said the court would hold an evidentiary hearing concerning Chester's conflict-of-interest claim. Chester has claimed that his former trial counsel had personal legal troubles brought on by drunken driving that may have influenced his strategy.
Chester's current attorney, Daniel Silverman, could not be reached for comment, but furthered that argument in a letter to the court.
"The number and breadth of errors and omissions committed by trial counsel in Mr. Chester's case can only be explained by his need to curry the prosecution's favor in connection with his own legal, personal and financial difficulties," Silverman wrote.
"Attorney error as glaring as retaining a juror who would refuse to vote for a life sentence, or failing to prepare a case in mitigation, or failing to present mitigating evidence that the accused had no prior criminal record cannot be explained away as mere ineptitude," the letter continued. "These errors and omissions were directly antagonistic to the client's interests and thus otherwise inexplicable."
Bucks County Assistant District Attorney Michelle Henry told Courthouse News that the claims have no merit and that the commonwealth is awaiting the results of the evidentiary hearing.
Since the judge has vacated the conviction and sentence without prejudice, prosecutors may be able to reinstate them. The remaining second-degree murder conviction is not punishable by death.
According to media reports of Milano's murder and the ensuing trial, Chester and Laird abducted Milano from a bar, forced him into a wooded area and repeatedly slashed the artist's throat with a box cutter. Prosecutors said that Chester claimed in the first trial to have only witnessed Laird commit the murder.
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