Former Luzerne County public defender has extensive experience with death penalty cases

Last updated: October 23. 2013 11:42PM - 1640 Views
ANDREW SCOTT The Pocono Record

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A lawyer who has defended more than 30 death penalty cases and a former Pike County district attorney are representing Rockne Newell, the man charged with fatally shooting three people at an Aug. 5 Ross Township supervisors’ meeting.

Monroe County President Judge Margherita Patti Worthington last month assigned Luzerne County attorney William Ruzzo and Pike County attorney Michael Weinstein to represent Newell.

Neither Ruzzo nor Weinstein is commenting on any defense strategies they’re planning.

The prosecution is seeking the death penalty if Newell is convicted. Capital cases usually have two defense attorneys, as opposed to just one, and a greater number of jurors.

There are attorneys in Monroe County who are certified to defend capital cases, but they either have conflicts of interest in Newell’s case or are unavailable for other reasons, according to Ruzzo and Weinstein.

This prompted Worthington to look outside of the county for available capital-case-certified defense attorneys with no conflicts.

Ruzzo, 72, was assigned to the case more than a week after retiring from more than 20 years of service with the Luzerne County Public Defender’s Office.

“I took it as a compliment and was flattered when Judge Worthington asked me to be co-counsel on this case,” said Ruzzo, a lifelong Luzerne County resident who studied political science at Wilkes University, began teaching after graduating and entered law school in his 40s at an attorney friend’s advice. “I strongly oppose the death penalty, so I feel privileged to do this kind of work.”

Ruzzo said he has defended on “five or six” capital cases that have gone to trial.

“None of my clients in those cases were sentenced to execution,” he said. “In more than 25 other capital cases I defended on, I was able to negotiate agreements where my clients pleaded guilty to lesser charges.”

Ruzzo recalls one case where all charges were dismissed.

That was the Montgomery County case of Paul Camiolo, who was 33 when charged with setting a 1996 fire that killed his ill parents in their home. Camiolo no longer wanted to pay his parents’ health care costs and wanted the money that was his inheritance upon their deaths, police alleged.

“We had excellent arson experts and the prosecution, realizing their own experts’ science was faulty, dismissed the case right before the scheduled trial date,” Ruzzo said, praising attorney Tom Cometa for his work as defense co-counsel in the case.

A New York City native and honorably discharged U.S. Marine corporal who graduated from Long Island University and Brooklyn Law School, Weinstein doesn’t recall the exact number of capital cases he has worked on, but he prosecuted two such cases as Pike County district attorney in the 1980s.

The defendant in one case was sentenced to life in prison. The defendant in the other was sentenced to death, but later sentenced to life after a retrial following a higher court overturning the first conviction.

A member of the Milford Lodge and Milford Lions Club and founding member of the United Way of Pike County, Weinstein in 2010 defended one of two drug dealers charged with kidnapping and fatally shooting a third dealer whose body was found in a remote wooded area of Porter Township in 2007. Both defendants were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

“None of my clients have been sentenced to death,” the grandfather of two said. “As a defense attorney and officer of the court, I rarely turn down a case. It’s a duty I have to the court and the Bar Association.”

Newell’s pre-trial preliminary hearing is scheduled for Nov. 14.

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