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Pa. conviction overturned

September 02, 1999|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - A federal appeals court has overturned the conviction of a Franklin County man imprisoned for 20 years on charges he killed a man and dumped his body down a well in 1975.

The case of Larry Gene Hull, formerly of St. Thomas, Pa., "was prejudiced by his counsel's failure to present any of the numerous pieces of evidence regarding his competency, or to challenge the government's single witness during his brief competency hearing," according to the Aug. 23 ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third District.

Hull, now 52, pleaded guilty in August 1979 to murder in the Feb. 25, 1975, shooting of Lloyd Shatzer of St. Thomas. At that time a guilty plea to murder in Pennsylvania was followed by a degree of guilt hearing. Hull was found guilty of first-degree murder and given a life sentence.

State courts rejected Hull's claim of ineffective counsel, but his case was later heard in federal court. Franklin County District Attorney John F. Nelson argued the commonwealth's case at a July 13 hearing.

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"Blake Martin believed that Larry Hull was competent," Nelson said Monday of the late public defender who represented Hull. "Competency deals with the person's ability to understand the charges against them and assist in his defense."

The federal court ruling states that before new criminal proceedings may begin against Hull, "the Pennsylvania courts must determine that he has regained his competency to be retried."

"Regardless of Hull's guilt or innocence, his constitutional right to effective counsel would be violated if he were convicted of first-degree murder when there was a reasonable probability that he was incompetent to stand trial," the court ruling stated.

The ruling stated that Hull was found incompetent shortly after his 1975 arrest "and given an initial medical diagnosis of borderline mental retardation and schizophrenia."

A 1977 psychiatric report while he was at Farview State Hospital described Hull as having repeated episodes "of hearing voices telling him to kill someone."

During a July 31, 1979, competency hearing, one psychiatrist testified Hull was competent and Martin did not cross-examine the witness, the court said.

"I drank about half a case myself, but it never affected me," Hull told Judge George Eppinger when he pleaded guilty. He said he and Shatzer went to a bar in Mercersburg and bought more beer.

Hull said he blacked out later, but did remember "being at home holding a gun in my hand and him standing in front of me."

Shatzer was killed by a round from a .22-caliber rifle, according to court records.

"He thought Shatzer had thrown a stone at his dog," Nelson said.

Nelson said he has 15 days from the Aug. 23 ruling to appeal it. If he does not, Hull could be brought back to Franklin County for another competency hearing.

If found competent, Hull could be tried for criminal homicide or negotiate a new plea agreement, which Nelson said was unlikely.

Before Hull pleaded guilty 20 years ago, the late Judge Eppinger asked him if he understood that he was presumed innocent until proven guilty.

"Does that mean I can go home?" Hull asked the judge. Eppinger said that wasn't the case, and Hull entered the guilty plea.

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