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Singley back in court

January 24, 2001|By STACEY DANZUSO

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - The penalty phase of Michael Brandon Singley's trial began Wednesday with graphic visual and audio evidence against the Chambersburg man guilty of killing his cousin's wife and their neighbor in 1998.

During the first day of testimony, the prosecution played a 911 call from the night of the Nov. 3, 1998, murders and a recorded statement from Singley the day after. The jury also was showed pictures of both victims, one bound with duct tape with a knife wound the length of her torso.

Singley, 24, of 1126 E. Brandon Drive, has pleaded guilty to the stabbing death and rape of Christine Rohrer, 23, of 391 Elder St., and the fatal shooting of James Gilliam, 39, her next door neighbor. He also has pleaded guilty to stabbing and shooting his cousin and Rohrer's husband, Travis Rohrer, and with attempting to shoot Gilliam's girlfriend, Deb L. Hock of Chambersburg.

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In a September hearing, Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Judge Douglas W. Herman determined Singley was guilty of first-degree murder for Gilliam's shooting. Because of intense media coverage, Herman postponed the penalty phase until this month.

Now it is up to a jury of eight women and four men to decide if Singley will die by lethal injection or spend the rest of his life in prison.

The prosecution must prove aggravated circumstances in both murders in order for the jury to render a death sentence.

After six days of jury selection, the courtroom was packed Wednesday with nearly 100 friends, family and others anxious for the proceedings to begin.

During their opening statements, both Assistant District Attorney Jill McCracken and Public Defender Robert Trambley reminded the jury they swore to keep an open mind and apply the law fairly.

"We wanted to ensure we had a jury willing to wipe out of their minds of anything they knew about this case or thought they knew ... and would honestly apply the law," McCracken said. "This is not about our opinions about the death penalty, it's about applying the law."

McCracken went on to outline her case, detailing how Singley prepared for the murders all day, stopping at both Kmart and Wal-Mart to buy duct tape and bullets.

She also passed to the jury photos of Christine Rohrer bound with duct tape at the hands and legs - with a knife wound running from her chest the length of her torso - and Gilliam dead on the porch from a single gunshot wound to the chest.

She said the prosecution will prove there were aggravated circumstances including committing a murder while perpetrating a felony: Singley has pleaded guilty to rape, criminal trespass and the theft of Christine Rohrer's Jeep - all felonies.

Other aggravated conditions could be the alleged torture of Christine Rohrer and creating a dangerous situation while shooting at Gilliam and Hock.

Testimony Wednesday came from Hock, Travis Rohrer, Chambersburg Police Sgt. Glenn Manns, Det. Sgt. Dianne Kelso and Det. Scott Mummert.

There were no surprises from the witnesses, who had also testified at the degree-of-guilt hearing in September.

Hock talked about how she feared for her life and pretended to be dead after Singley shot at her and her boyfriend when they arrived home from dinner, just as Singley was leaving the Rohrers' apartment.

"I was laying as still as possible and not breathing. I don't know for how long. It was a short time but felt like forever," Hock said.

Travis Rohrer told the jury he arrived home from school early and encountered Singley inside his apartment with a gun in one hand and a knife in the other.

A struggle ensued and Singley slit Travis Rohrer from his neck about 12 inches down his back and then shot him twice - once in the arm and once in the side, he said.

The detectives outlined how they tracked Singley down at his home the next day and arrested him.

McCracken later played a 40-minute recorded statement from Singley the day after the murders, which raised the issue of his mental and emotional stability at the time of the murders.

In the tape, Singley said he had been having suicidal thoughts for a month and had checked himself into Brook Lane Health Services in Hagerstown for a week shortly before the murders. He said he planned to kill himself the day after the murders.

Last year, Singley was found competent to stand trial by a defense psychiatrist. Although Singley has said he had unspecified mental problems, a mental infirmity defense can not be brought out in the guilt phase. But evidence of a mental infirmity can be introduced during the penalty phase.

As he listened to himself describe his thoughts leading up to the killings, Singley began to cry in the courtroom Wednesday.

Also on the recording, Singley described how he taped Christine Rohrer to the bed but would not talk about what he did to her.

He described his encounter with his cousin. "I stabbed him with a knife. Then he got aggressive and flipped over and I stabbed him a few more times," he said on the tape.

He then explained fleeing the house and running into the next-door neighbors.

"I didn't even think. I just turned and fire two shots, one at each person," he said.

The day's testimony ended with a display of evidence from the crime scene, including Christine Rohrer's ripped T-shirt and bra and the folding knife and gun Singley used.

Testimony resumes at 9 a.m. today in the Franklin County Courthouse, where McCracken will continue to enter more crime scene evidence and call a pathologist to the stand.

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