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Singley pleads guilty

August 16, 2000|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Michael Brandon Singley pleaded guilty Wednesday in Franklin County Court of Common Pleas to murdering his cousin's wife and her neighbor and trying to kill two other people.

A jury will decide whether he receives a life sentence or the death penalty.

Singley, 24, of 1126 E. Brandon Drive, Chambersburg, pleaded guilty to all the charges filed against him in the Nov. 3, 1998, death of Christine Rohrer, 23, and her next-door neighbor James Gilliam, 39, at their Elder Street duplex in Chambersburg.

He pleaded to first-degree murder and rape in the death of Rohrer and murder generally in the shooting of Gilliam.

Turning to the gallery, a sobbing Singley told the families of his victims, "First, I'd like to say I'm sorry to everyone in this courtroom I have mental problems."

"It was going through my mind that if I was able to kill my cousin and his wife, that I could be able to bring it on myself," the manacled defendant said. "I planned to kill Christine (Rohrer) and my cousin Travis," he said.

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He said later that he meant to kill himself afterward, but did not explain during the 90-minute hearing why he had to kill them first.

Singley had been scheduled for a pre-trial conference Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., but prosecution and defense attorneys met during the late morning and early afternoon to finalize a plea agreement before the hearing began at about 3 p.m.

Singley, his head shorn and looking considerably heavier than when he was arrested, also pleaded guilty to the attempted murder of Travis Rohrer, his cousin and Christine Rohrer's husband, and Gilliam's girlfriend, Deb Hock, and related charges of criminal trespass and theft of a motor vehicle.

Because no degree of guilt was determined in the death of Gilliam, Judge Douglas W. Herman scheduled a nonjury degree of guilt hearing for Tuesday, Sept. 19. Herman said that hearing will determine whether Singley committed first-, second- or third-degree murder.

If Herman determines Gilliam's death was first-degree murder, Singley would face a penalty phase.

Franklin County District Attorney John F. Nelson said the case of Gilliam's death could then be included in the penalty phase Singley faces for Rohrer's death. That proceeding is scheduled to take place before a jury beginning Monday, Oct. 2, the day Singley's jury trial for the double murder was to begin.

Now the jury will not decide his guilt or innocence, but whether he should live or die.

"I said I had trouble with the car and I needed to use the phone," Singley testified on Wednesday when Herman asked how he got into the Rohrer home. "She (Christine) went upstairs. I followed her upstairs. I duct-taped her, took her clothes off her and raped her," he testified.

Singley said he used duct tape to bind her wrists and then secured her hands to the bed. Singley testified he stabbed her in the heart.

When Travis Rohrer returned home, Singley testified that he stabbed his cousin in the back and shot him. He learned later Rohrer was shot in the arm, he said.

Singley then left the house, but outside the house "There was two people standing there. I pulled up and shot," he said. "I did not plan to kill him. I just shot," he said of Gilliam, who died of a gunshot wound to the chest.

Hock was fired at, but not hit, according to Chambersburg Police records.

Singley then stole the Rohrers' Jeep Cherokee and drove to his home, where he was apprehended the next day, according to court documents.

Last year, a defense psychiatrist found Singley competent to stand trial. Although Singley said he had unspecified mental problems, he told Herman he was aware a "mental infirmity defense cannot be brought out in the guilt phase."

Evidence of a mental infirmity can be introduced during the penalty phase, according to Public Defender Robert J. Trambley.

"He pleaded guilty to what he believes he did," Trambley said when asked why Singley entered the pleas.

"He doesn't believe he committed a premeditated killing against Gilliam," co-counsel Michael J. Toms said about that part of the plea agreement.

The District Attorney's Office has filed notices of aggravating circumstances against Singley, a requirement under the Pennsylvania Crimes Code to seek the death penalty. Those include killing by torture in the case of Christine Rohrer; killing a potential witness in a criminal case regarding Gilliam; and putting others at grave risk of death in the attempted murders of Travis Rohrer and Hock.

If a jury does not sentence Singley to death, he faces a mandatory life sentence without parole for first-degree murder, according to the state law.

About 20 people were in the courtroom, including Travis Rohrer, Christine Rohrer's parents and other relatives and Singley's parents. The families declined to be interviewed, but one member of Christine Rohrer's family shook hands with Singley's parents and tried to console them.

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