Woman to face retrial for murder of step-greatgrandmother

The Troy Record, June 27, 2011

By Lucian McCarty, Troy Record

BALLSTON SPA — Katherine Seeber has spent the last decade in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree murder for the death of her step-great-grandmother Ruth Witter. This week, though, her guilty plea was tossed out by Judge Jerry J. Scarano and Seeber may go to trial for the 2001 murder.

Seeber pleaded guilty to the crime in 2001 and has been serving a sentence of 20 years to life in prison since then.

Jeffrey Hampshire, who has a long history with Saratoga County law enforcement, including a recent conviction for his involvement in a fatal March 2010 hit-and-run, was also accused in Ruth Witter’s murder but was acquitted at trial.

On Monday, Scarano vacated Seeber’s plea and conviction, effectively bringing the case back to pre-plea status. Seeber’s lawyers made a motion to vacate the plea in March, citing new evidence in her case indicating a piece of forensic evidence used against her — which her lawyers maintain was a tipping point in her decision to plead guilty — that has since been discredited.

Scarano found that some of the forensic evidence submitted during the trial was flawed because a lab technician who handled the evidence later admitted to skipping some required tests.

Garry Veeder, a trace evidence technician at the New York State Police Forensic Identification Center, testified in the 2001 case against Hampshire that fibers recovered from the duct tape and bed sheet used to bind Witter matched black suede gloves worn by Seeber.

In 2008 Veeder committed suicide amid an investigation by State Police into his failure to follow procedures, according to a State Inspector General’s report.

Though she maintained she was not in the house when Witter was bound, Seeber pleaded guilty in exchange for a sentence or 20 years to life in prison rather than 25 years to life.

Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy III said he is still deciding whether to appeal Scarano’s decision.

“That is a decision that has to be made,” said Richard Wendling, who prosecuted Seeber and Hampshire in the original case and handled recent hearings seeking to toss the guilty plea.

“Obviously, I am very disappointed and strongly disagree,” Wendling said.

“There is nothing to establish that the evidence or opinion is faulty or was wrong,” he said, adding that he “disagrees with the significance” placed on the particular piece of evidence that was discredited.

Murphy, too, said the significance of the evidence in question “is minimal, at best.”

Wendling said “there was not a major concession” on the part of the District Attorney’s Office in terms of Seeber’s guilty plea. They only reduced the minimum of the sentence by five years on a 25-to-life sentence. Because she was not offered much of a lightened sentence, Wendling attributes Seeber’s willingness to plea to the strength of the case against her.

Wendling said the prosecution had “overwhelming evidence” against Seeber besides the fibers.

Scarano challenged that assertion in his ruling.

“To the contrary,” he wrote, “although there may be a convincing case that the defendant committed various crimes both before and after the victim was killed, evidence that the defendant is guilty of the actual murder is considerably less convincing.”

In fact, Scarano even pointed out that Seeber’s eventual guilty plea was less than convincing. He said the DA office’s descriptions of some of Seeber’s statements amounted to a “blatant mischaracterization.”

The description in the post-hearing memorandum stated that Seeber admitted to assisting with the murder of Witter. In fact, according to Scarano, she did not admit to murder, but rather to other crimes associated with it like stealing Witter’s property.

Seeber will be re-arraigned in Saratoga County Court on second-degree murder, third-degree burglary and various misdemeanor charges stemming from Witter’s death. Wendling said Seeber may even be eligible for bail after 10 years in prison.

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