Judge Rules Murder Plea was Tainted

The Times Union, June 27, 2011

By Leigh Hornbeck

BALLSTON SPA — A woman who pleaded guilty 10 years ago to killing her step-greatgrandmother was given a new chance Monday to take her case to trial. Saratoga County Judge Jerry Scarano ruled Katherine Seeber’s rights were violated, prompting her unfairly to plead guilty. Seeber, then 19, and Jeffrey Hampshire, then 20, were charged with murder and burglary in the Feb. 12, 2000, death of 91-year-old Ruth Witter in Stillwater.

After pleading guilty and accepting a sentence of 20 years to life in prison, Seeber testified against Hampshire. He was acquitted.

Four lawyers who worked pro bono for Seeber persuaded the judge that Garry Veeder, a onetime forensic scientist, contaminated the case. The filed what is known as a “440 motion” under Article 440 of the state Criminal Procedure law, made to the trial court, not an appeals court, about facts not contained in the trial record. Veeder, who was accused of falsifying data in dozens of criminal cases, committed suicide in May 2008 after he was questioned by State Police. Veeder had compiled a report used as evidence against Seeber. The report said he detected fibers from gloves Seeber was wearing the day of Witter’s death on duct tape found on the woman’s mouth when her body was recovered. “The existence of the forensic report appears to have been the deciding factor in the decision to plead guilty rather than go to trial,” Scarano wrote in his decision. In addition to the state’s evidence against Veeder, at Seeber’s hearing in May, a retired forensic science professor testified for the defense that “It would have been impossible for the conclusion to have been drawn, as reported by Mr. Veeder, that the fibers from defendant’s glove were ‘identical’ to the fibers on the duct tape.” During Hampshire’s trial, Seeber testified she and he switched gloves because his were too big to use while working with the duct tape she said he put on Witter’s mouth. Hampshire’s lawyer, Cheryl Coleman, said Seeber claimed the switch because she knew fibers from her gloves were on the tape. Public Defender John Ciulla, Seeber’s attorney in 2000 and 2001, said it was this evidence that led him to advise his client to plead guilty — even though she insisted she was outside Witter’s home while Hampshire allegedly strangled the elderly woman. Ciulla said he was “extremely gratified” to hear of the new development. Seeber was young, he said, her mother lived in Idaho and her father died while the case was under way. Ciulla said he and Seeber developed a strong bond. “I relied on Garry Veeder without knowing what was discovered in 2008 by the state Inspector General,” Ciulla said. Ben Ostrer, one of the four downstate attorneys who took Seeber’s case, was waiting on Seeber’s weekly call from the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility Monday afternoon to tell her the news. Ostrer said he will file an application with the court to have Seeber transferred to county jail. Scarano’s order brought back painful memories for Ruth Witter’s surviving son, Alfred Witter, 74, of Malta. He described his late mother as a woman in good health for her age. She didn’t drive, so Alfred Witter picked her up every Friday to go grocery shopping.

“The district attorney didn’t try this case properly. (Seeber) shouldn’t have been allowed to plead,” said Witter, who expressed uncertainty about what crime Seeber committed. Witter said he believes Seeber and Hampshire acted together, but Hampshire is the one who killed his mother. “Physically I’m not sure what role she played, but they did it together,” he said. According to the trial record, Hampshire and Seeber stole jewelry from Witter and the two of them worked together to hide her body near Saratoga National Historical Park.

District Attorney James Murphy III rejected the premise that Seeber’s plea was based on faulty evidence and said he may appeal Scarano’s ruling. If the appeal fails, Seeber will be rearraigned on the charges first filed against her in 2000, and the road toward a trial will begin again.

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