WILKES-BARRE — Tyler Duda, the teenager accused of vehicular homicide in the July 5 death of a Nanticoke man, will have his case transferred to juvenile court, Luzerne County Judge Lesa Gelb ruled Friday afternoon.
Duda, now 17, was 16 at the time of the July 5 incident which left Nicholas Zurilla, 59, dead after he was struck by an SUV outside his home at 340 W. Union St.
In her order, Gelb wrote that the move would best serve the public interest, Duda and justice, citing testimony by psychiatrist Richard E. Fischbein last month that Duda “is capable of being rehabilitated before he turns 21,” and that “in the adult system, (Duda) would not receive the therapy necessary and would not ever become a productive member of society.”
Gelb also cited another, more ominous outcome if Duda were sent to adult prison.
“This court is keenly aware that juveniles who are convicted and sentenced into a criminal setting are likely to experience sexual assaults and violence directed toward them,” the judge wrote.
Duda could have faced 20 years or more in prison. Under the juvenile system, he can only be held until he turns 21.
Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis had not yet seen the ruling when contacted by a reporter Friday afternoon. She declined comment.
Duda, of Kingston Township, pleaded not guilty to charges of homicide by vehicle, third-degree murder, accidents involving death, driving without a license, speeding, reckless driving and failing to stay in lane.
He was released to a juvenile detention facility on Feb. 8, when Gelb modified his $1 million bail to unsecured.
Duda was accused of taking his mother’s 2013 Ford Edge without her knowledge and was out joy riding with Donald Kinney Jr., 16, in Nanticoke on the way to visit a female friend.
The girl Duda and Kinney were en route to visit told police about a phone call she said she had with Duda while he was driving that night.
While talking to Duda, the girl told police, she heard Kinney tell Duda to “slow down,” and then heard the crash that sent Zurilla through the Ford’s windshield and knocked Kinney unconscious.
A state police reconstruction of the crash alleges Duda was traveling in excess of 70 mph when he struck Zurilla, arrest papers say. The speed limit on West Union Street is 25 mph.
Zurilla had been sitting on the porch of his neighbor, Paul Murphy, at 341 W. Union St. As Murphy was about to enter his house, Zurilla was crossing the street and said in a loud voice, “This car is going to hit me,” according to arrest papers.
Zurilla was dismembered in the collision. Nanticoke Police Chief William Shultz said last year he had never seen such a gruesome death in his 40 years of police work.
Duda tested clean for alcohol or drugs, which Gelb noted in her opinion.
“Although there is evidence that (Duda) was told to slow down by his passenger, there is testimony it was done seconds before the crash took place. The question of whether (Duda) had enough time to react before the crash remains,” the judge wrote.
Gelb’s ruling comes after a two-day decertification hearing last month on the defendant’s request to have his case moved to juvenile court. That proceeding included appearances by a number of experts for both sides, with Duda’s mental health and behavioral issues a key focus for both.
Duda was represented by Luzerne County First Assistant Public Defender Demetrius Fannick and Public Defender Cheryl A. Sobeski-Reedy. The prosecution was represented by assistant district attorneys Mamie Phillips and Stephen Lentz.
Duda’s lawyers and their witnesses said the juvenile justice system will provide treatment, rehabilitation and supervision for which Duda is a proper candidate because of his age, mental capacity, maturity level and adolescent decision-making abilities.
Duda “is and continues to be a danger” to the community, and the vehicular homicide suspect’s case properly belongs in the Luzerne County Court system, prosecutors argued.
A Pittsburgh psychiatrist who testified for the prosecution questioned that view, saying he believes Duda would not be able to receive adequate treatment in the three-and-a-half years remaining before he turns 21 in November 2017.
Dr. Bruce Wright also told the court he does not believe Duda is bipolar, as others testified, and that with an IQ of 94, he may be below average, but Duda is “not borderline intellectually or mentally retarded,” in Wright’s words.
But Gelb, in her opinion, wrote: “this Court finds Dr. Fischbein more persuasive and credible upon the salient issues … than Dr. Wright … .”
Victim’s kin considered
Gelb acknowledged testimony given by Zurilla’s sister, Diane Washik, his niece, Nicole Washik and his daughter, Kristy Place, on the effect his death had on each of them, saying they “were obviously in great pain.”
Reached Friday evening, Diane Washik said she was not yet aware of the ruling and declined comment.
The judge also made reference to Duda’s family life, noting the death of his cardiologist father and maternal grandfather when Duda was 8, as well as the loss of his maternal grandmother, with whom he was close, when Duda was a teenager.
Fischbein, she wrote, attributed some of Duda’s disorders to “the loss of family members during his youth and a lack of very structured parental guidance by his mother, creating anger, frustration and depression.” His bipolar disorder, she added, “would be genetic in nature.”
“In terms of the impact upon the victims, Dr. Fischbein testified that it is obviously a traumatic experience,” Gelb wrote.
“As far as the community goes it was also put at risk. However, it was an impulsive act and not (Duda’s) intention to hurt anyone.”
Fischbein, she wrote, testified it was “very typical adolescent behavior.”
“Adolescent behavior improves over time, per Dr. Fischbein. Per both Dr. Wright and Dr. Fischbein, it is clearly not a sophisticated criminal act, but Dr. Fischbein calls it impulsive and Dr. Wright calls it deliberate and willful conduct,” Gelb wrote.
Duda, she said, “is showing some remorse for his behavior” and has responded well to therapy provided by Ned Delaney, a licensed psychologist who has met with him numerous times, according to testimony.