Attorney takes stand in Pa. man's quest for new trial

August 08, 2013|By JENNIFER FITCH |
  • Harrigan

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — Two attorneys who represented a former Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., man at his murder trial in 2011 were in court Thursday to defend their actions and decisions at that trial.

Michael Harrigan, who was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, is asking the Franklin County (Pa.) Court of Common Pleas for a new trial. The 32-year-old fatally shot his neighbor, Steven Wetzel, on May 27, 2010, in a dispute.

In a Post Conviction Relief Act petition, Harrigan has raised three factors:

• The two trial attorneys allegedly told Harrigan that Wetzel’s criminal history could not be mentioned during the trial, even though the judge ruled it could.

• The previous defense team did not utilize character witnesses during the trial, despite Harrigan’s request to do so.

• The court did not instruct the jury that one of its possible verdicts could be involuntary manslaughter.

The Post Conviction Relief Act is an indirect method of appeal in criminal cases. A direct appeal is when a criminal case is appealed from the Court of Common Pleas, where the accused lost the case, and wants to challenge some aspect of it.

Harrigan’s trial lawyers were Scott Rolle of Frederick, Md., and James Reed, who has offices in Hagerstown and Chambersburg.

Both arrived in court Thursday to answer questions from an appeals attorney, although only Rolle was questioned before the session was adjourned for the day.

Rolle testified he and Reed worked together well on Harrigan’s case.

“I was more prepared for this case than any case I tried in 26 years,” Rolle said.

Harrigan’s new attorney, David Foster, questioned Rolle extensively about why he did not go into detail at trial about Wetzel’s criminal past.

Rolle said there were several issues, including that Harrigan did not know specifics about Wetzel’s background prior to the shooting and only had been told his neighbor was a “bad guy.”

He said presenting the situation as Harrigan going outside with two guns to confront a bad guy may have appeared to be “lying in wait,” a component of first-degree murder.

“We were doing everything we could to do away with first- and third-degree murder, and apparently we were successful,” Rolle said.

Harrigan and his family wanted a full acquittal, so the defense strategy choices were self-defense or accidental shooting, he said.

In questioning, Foster suggested Harrigan knowing Wetzel had a propensity for violence could have helped the case.

He later asked about character witnesses, questioning why more people did not offer testimony about Harrigan being a good citizen.

Harrigan seemed to provide enough credible testimony about his past and service in the military, Rolle said.

“I thought he came off as likable, credible, believable and as an American hero. Sometimes you have to rest on that,” he said.

Judge Douglas Herman adjourned court when Rolle and Reed said they had afternoon commitments. The next hearing is scheduled for Sept. 13.

Harrigan is serving a five-year sentence in state prison.

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