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Video to be central part of case in Pa. corrections officer’s killing

The inmate is accused of attacking Sgt. Mark Baserman, 60, in a housing unit’s day room at SCI-Somerset on Feb. 15, 2018


Sgt. Mark Baserman, 60, died of blunt force trauma less than two weeks after he was assaulted by an inmate.

Officer Down Memorial Page

By David Hurst
The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.

SOMERSET, Pa. — Surveillance video depicting a fatal assault against an SCI-Somerset corrections officer in 2018 will be part of the homicide case against the inmate accused of killing him, the Somerset County District Attorney’s Office said Thursday.

Meanwhile, Paul Jawon Kendrick’s defense attorneys said they plan to have their client examined by a neuropsychiatrist — an expert in the field of how brain injuries affect cognitive, emotional and behavioral actions — indicating that unaddressed issues stemming from childhood trauma may be used as a defense.

Attorneys on both sides of the case provided insight into the preparations for the long- delayed trial during a hearing before Cambria County Senior Judge Patrick Kiniry that lasted more than four hours.

The hearing was scheduled to settle ongoing legal arguments over more than 30 pre-trial motions filed by Kendrick’s defense, which is seeking to have a potential death penalty dropped, and to have the case transferred to another county or to pick jurors from outside the area, among other requests.

Kendrick, 28, is accused of attacking Sgt. Mark Baserman, 60, in a housing unit’s day room at SCI-Somerset on Feb. 15, 2018. Investigators have said Kendrick hit Baserman in the face and kicked him in the head, then attacked another officer before he was apprehended.

Baserman died two weeks later of injuries he sustained in the assault, officials have said.

Video footage

Video footage was the topic of several motions discussed at the hearing.

“The surveillance of the assault of (Baserman) is the most significant piece of evidence in this entire case,” Somerset County Assistant District Attorney Christina DeMarco-Breeden told Kiniry, indicating that prosecutors already have copies of the recordings.

A separate video involves a corrections officer’s interaction with Kendrick after he had been charged with Baserman’s murder and transferred to SCI-Huntingdon.

Prosecutors did not play the video in court, but alleged that Kendrick “expounded” he sometimes has the urge to assault corrections officers, after he was asked why he put an unspecified liquid on one officer from inside his cell.

Defense attorneys Timothy Burns , Kenneth Sottile and Edward Rymsza have raised objections about both videos. Sottile questioned whether officers were leading Kendrick to make statements about the case.

SCI-Huntingdon Capt. Christopher Franks testified that he questioned Kendrick about why he splashed the unspecified “fluid” onto an officer earlier that day, and that it was Kendrick, not Franks, who brought up the SCI-Somerset assault.

Kiniry said he will review the videos before issuing a ruling.

‘Check it out’

Kendrick, who is now incarcerated at SCI-Fayette, is already serving a life sentence for a previous homicide.

Somerset County District Attorney Molly Metzgar has said she will seek the death penalty if Kendrick is convicted of first-degree murder.

Thursday’s lengthy hearing also included debate over whether the trial should be moved to another county, or if jurors from outside Somerset County should be picked, due to extensive coverage of the case.

Also discussed was a motion to disqualify Metzgar’s office from handling the case — and, at one point, blunt words from Kiniry to a Somerset County assistant prosecutor for failing to follow up with a witness about a statement he said could one day be used in an attempt to overturn a conviction.

Many of the pre-trial motions relate to the death penalty, which defense attorneys are trying to have withdrawn.

They initially filed a motion to have Metzgar’s office removed from the case for, in their words, declining to consider a series of “mitigating” factors they said should be weighed against factors that support seeking the death penalty. Rymsza said Thursday the defense was withdrawing the motion because Metzgar has agreed to meet with them soon to listen to their arguments.

In a separate, unrelated motion, the defense asked Kiniry to consider dropping the death penalty, regardless, on the basis of an alleged “Brady disclosure” violation. The Supreme Court ruling in Brady vs. Maryland established that prosecutors must turn over all evidence that might exonerate a defendant.

Rymsza said the Somerset County District Attorney’s Office told the defense that a relative of Baserman’s had notified them that Baserman had been investigated over an unspecified accusation and, later, exonerated at some point. But Rymsza said prosecutors made no attempt to learn anything more about the matter, such as when and why it occurred.

Given that defense attorneys are still struggling to obtain documents from the state Department of Corrections , they have no idea whether or not the information is new or if it could potentially help their defense, he said.

“The prosecution has an obligation to learn of potential Brady info,” Rymsza said.

DeMarco-Breeden argued that prosecutors met their legal obligations and that it wasn’t her office’s job to go on a “fishing expedition.”

Kiniry disagreed. He said scenarios such as this one are “too important not to ask ... a couple questions.”

“Why would you take a chance on a case of this magnitude when the result could be an appellate issue 10 years down the road?” he said.

Kiniry did not issue a ruling, but said “answers are needed” before moving forward.

“Check it out,” he told DeMarco-Breeden.

“Understood,” she said.

Venue, jury argument

Defense attorneys argued again that the trial should be moved to another county, or that out-of-county jurors should hear the case, citing an “avalanche” of media attention.

They also noted that many people in Somerset County — which is home to around 70,000 people, two state prisons and one county jail — have relatives who work in corrections. That will make it hard and time- consuming to find people without conflicts or bias, Burns said.

Burns also cited a newspaper poll published shortly after the killing that showed a majority of people support the death penalty, another concern for his client.

But DeMarco-Breeden said Burns’ argument is overblown.

Just 81 residents participated in the death penalty poll — and of the 100 media articles covering the case, most were written or televised shortly after the event occurred in 2018, she said.

“There’s been a sufficient cooling-off period,” DeMarco- Breeden said, arguing that that supports giving the prosecution an opportunity to seat a Somerset County jury.

She said the motion has already been addressed in court and was well summarized by a now-retired Somerset County judge, noting that despite the national attention the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse case at Penn State University received a decade ago, Centre County was able to find a pool of jurors — “and we’d expect the same in Somerset County ,” she said.

After defense attorneys pointed out that Gov. Josh Shapiro put a moratorium on signing execution warrants — continuing a trend started by former Gov. Tom Wolf — prosecutors responded that that doesn’t matter from a state Constitution standpoint.

“It’s still a law on the books,” DeMarco-Breeden said.

Other matters in court included arguments whether a plaque at the front of the Somerset County Courthouse mentioning Baserman should be covered or removed, debate whether a video on unconcsious biases should be shown to jurors, and allegations of “destroyed” video that Rymsza said might be beneficial to the defense.

For the latter motion, prosecutors responded by calling on a prison security captain who testified that an incident referred to by the defense occurred in an area of the prison where cameras are used to monitor activity, but were not set to record.

Both sides indicated they are still awaiting more information and have not finalized witness lists for trial.

Kiniry suggested that Department of Corrections officials need to be contacted soon to obtain remaining records that do exist, but have not yet been provided to attorneys in both sides of the case.

Rymsza said defense attorneys were making arrangements with the Department of Corrections to allow their hired neuropsychiatrist to examine Kendrick and issue a report that the defense can offer as evidence.

Assitant District Attorney Thomas Leiden informed defense attorneys that they plan to call their own experts in the case, including a pathologist from ForensicDx in Windber and medical professionals from Conemaugh Health System who treated Baserman after the attack.

Kiniry did not indicate when he’ll issue a response to the lengthy list of arguments.


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