Pittsburg Post-Gazette

Is death row convict guilty of killing Johnstown woman?
'Innocence' reporters: Simmons case had holes

Ernest Simmons
Ernest Simmons at his trial in 1993

Sunday, January 25, 2004

This story was written by Nathan Crabbe and Jamie Keaney of the Innocence Institute of Western Pennsylvania under the supervision of Post-Gazette staff writer and institute Director Bill Moushey

He seemed like a logical suspect. After all, Ernest Simmons had spent most of his adult life behind bars and his last prison stretch was for beating and robbing two elderly men.

So in May 1992, when 80-year-old Anna Knaze was found robbed and brutally murdered in her Johnstown home, suspicion quickly focused on Simmons. In short order, he was arrested, convicted and condemned to death row, where twice he has narrowly escaped execution.

In the past, Simmons had always pleaded guilty to his crimes. But this time, he swore he was innocent -- even when he was being secretly taped by his girlfriend.

An investigation by the Innocence Institute of Western Pennsylvania at Point Park University and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shows he may be right.

At the very least, the jury that convicted him lacked key evidence and information that challenged witnesses' stories.

Jurors didn't know that police withheld hair tests that didn't match Simmons' hair. They never heard the secret tape recordings made by his girlfriend, which were hidden by police. They didn't know that two witnesses against him escaped time behind bars in return for their testimony.

Most significantly, the jury didn't know that the state's star witness lied on the stand when she identified Simmons as the killer -- a falsehood she admitted just months ago to reporters from the Innocence Institute.

A federal judge will hear arguments Friday on whether Simmons, now 46, deserves a new trial or should stay on death row. While they wouldn't comment on specifics of the case, police and prosecutors maintain they have the right man.

After a series of violent crimes against the elderly in Johnstown 12 years ago, older residents were warned to be cautious. Still, Anna Knaze didn't hesitate to help a stranger in her close-knit neighborhood of older residences and warehouses.

After neighbors hadn't seen her for a day and her mail was untouched, Knaze's son came to check on her. He found her body slumped on a hallway floor in the late afternoon of May 6, 1992. An autopsy uncovered the horrors of her final minutes. Her spine was severed, all her ribs were broken and she had been strangled. Her purse, the only article missing from the home, would never be recovered.

The detective assigned to the case, Sgt. Richard Rok, had just worked his way up to detective after two years on the Johnstown police force.

Early in the investigation, neighbors reported they last saw Knaze inviting a black man, who claimed his car had broken down, into her home. With information he received about Simmons' past, Rok quickly pegged him as the probable killer.

Crime-ridden life

It's easy to see why Simmons was a target.

Born in 1957 to a 13-year-old mother in Philadelphia, he was sexually abused as a child and allowed to roam the streets to find his meals in Dumpsters. After child welfare agencies took him, he bounced among foster homes until a Harrisburg preacher and his wife adopted him. His stepmother later told his lawyers he was their most grateful foster child, but said the couple "got to him too late. He had spent too many years on the street just trying to survive."

By the time he was 27, Simmons had pleaded guilty to 19 charges of theft and had received four different prison terms. His most serious conviction came in 1984 in Harrisburg, where he admitted attacking and robbing two elderly men and was sentenced to seven to 15 years in prison.

Harrisburg police also suspected that he was responsible for killing two other elderly Harrisburg residents, but they lacked proof.

In prison, Simmons earned a barber's certificate before his parole in August 1991 at age 34. He chose Johnstown for a fresh start and soon found a job cutting hair.

Just six months later, Simmons called police and reported he had stumbled upon an 83-year-old man with a knife in his neck in his apartment complex. The man later died without identifying his attacker. Police believed Simmons killed the man, but as with the Harrisburg slayings, they had no evidence.

Nine days after Knaze's murder, Simmons was imprisoned on a technical parole violation.

When police questioned him about Knaze's killing, he insisted he had an alibi. He told police that on the day of the slaying, he drove his girlfriend to an appointment in downtown Johns-town, then took some friends of hers to an auto shop and stopped at a bank on the way back. He was late picking up his girlfriend, arriving around 11:45 a.m.

If the murder occurred around 11 as the autopsy suggested, Simmons argued, his tight schedule wouldn't have given him time to commit the crime. Rok believed Simmons had just enough time, a belief bolstered when two workers from a day-care center near Knaze's home picked out Simmons' mug shot as the man they saw walk past at the time.

A month into Rok's investigation, a next-door neighbor told the detective her son also could identify Simmons. The mother of Gary Blough said her son saw Simmons talking to Knaze, but didn't notify police because he was dodging a warrant for his own arrest for violating parole on a two-year prison sentence.

After the warrant finally caught up with him, Blough identified Simmons as the man who had been near Knaze's home. His statement would free him from jail, but jurors would never find out about his early release.

Secret taping

Rok had only circumstantial evidence. Nine partial fingerprints found in Knaze's home didn't match Simmons'.

So the officer stepped up his pursuit of Simmons' girlfriend, LaCherie Pletcher, figuring she knew more than she was letting on. He talked her into taping telephone and face-to-face conversations with Simmons. The gambit yielded no evidence against him, and the tapes then remained hidden for years.

She also told Rok that weeks before Knaze's killing, she had looked in Simmons' wallet and found the license of another elderly woman. Rok used the tip to locate a police report from Margaret Cobaugh, who reported her purse stolen around that time. He then found a later report from Cobaugh, in which she claimed she was raped just 13 hours after Knaze's murder.

Cobaugh, then 61, was a friend of Knaze and lived nearby. She told police she was attacked as she walked home after helping her next-door neighbor. In her initial statement, Cobaugh said she called an ambulance company to help the neighbor, who was having trouble breathing, then left as the vehicle approached. A man grabbed her from behind and threatened to kill her if she screamed, she said.

She told police she didn't get a good look at her attacker. She didn't get medical attention and didn't tell her husband that night what had happened. Instead, she destroyed possible evidence by soaking her underwear in the toilet and waited until the next day to call police.

It took weeks of questioning before Rok took a formal statement from Cobaugh about the incident. By then, she had changed 13 elements in her original story.

Most critically, she now claimed her attacker had warned her not to "open your ... mouth" or she would "get the same thing Anna Knaze got" -- even though that was before Knaze's body had been discovered.

She also claimed she saw her attacker's face, and it was Simmons.

As the trial neared, private investigator James Porreca, a retired Philadelphia police officer helping Simmons' defense, found that two of the purported eyewitnesses were hedging.

Of the two day-care workers who had identified Simmons in front of Knaze's home, one told Porreca she wasn't sure Simmons was the man because "all blacks look alike." The other said she told police she saw the same man again at a time Simmons was already in jail.

The investigator also found that no ambulance company within 20 miles had responded to a sick neighbor's home on the night Cobaugh said she was raped. In fact, the neighbor said Cobaugh admitted concocting the tale.

Porreca testified that when he went to confront Cobaugh, he first encountered her wheelchair-bound husband, Donald, who asked, "What happens if they find out my wife was telling a lie?" When Margaret Cobaugh walked into the room, her husband said: "Tell him the truth! Tell him the truth!" before she stopped the interview by wheeling him away.

Porreca never found out what Cobaugh's husband meant. Neither would Simmons' jury.

Threat crucial at trial

When Simmons' trial began June 1, 1993, Cambria County Assistant District Attorney Gary Costlow emphasized the threat that Cobaugh said she heard -- that she should keep quiet or she would get "the same thing Anna Knaze got."

"You will realize that the statement reveals the identity of the murderer in this case," he told jurors.

Simmons' lawyer, Cambria County Assistant Public Defender Michael Filia, told the jury that police had engaged in a "target-oriented investigation" of Simmons.

After testimony from the people who said they saw Simmons near Knaze's home, Cobaugh took the stand. Defense lawyers were able to show that she had continually altered her story, but one juror later said she believed that was just the result of the stress Cobaugh had experienced.

Yet the jury never heard a key piece of evidence about Margaret Cobaugh herself.

As a younger woman, Cobaugh had served an 11-year prison sentence for theft. A few days after the alleged rape, she bought a gun, lying on the purchase form about being a convicted felon. State police charged her with the crime until Rok intervened and got the state to drop the case so she could be a witness against Simmons. Cobaugh thus avoided the threat of at least five more years in prison.

And the jury certainly never heard Cobaugh say what she admitted to reporters from the Innocence Institute in recent months.

Cobaugh, now 73, said she named Simmons because Rok "was positive that Ernest Simmons did it but he had no proof of it. ... He didn't have a witness."

She said she told Rok she "could not positively identify anyone," but he continued to interrogate her. "I think Detective Rok wanted a conviction more than anything. He wanted Ernie Simmons bad," she said.

She finally agreed to identify Simmons as her attacker -- even though she now admits she never saw the man's face.

The trial jury, which included only one black member, took just five hours to find Simmons guilty of murder and robbery. One juror, Rose Kaiser, now says she likely would have voted differently if she had known about the flaws in Cobaugh's story and other withheld evidence.

Prosecutors offered Simmons life in prison if he would plead guilty and admit to other crimes. He refused and entered the death penalty phase of the case, represented by yet another public defender who hadn't even attended the trial. The public defender spoke for only two hours with Simmons before the penalty hearing and didn't present family members or a mental health expert as witnesses.

After the prosecution presented witnesses who detailed Simmons' past crimes against the elderly, jurors deliberated less than three hours before condemning him to death.

Simmons dodged his first date with death through appeals, before Gov. Tom Ridge signed a death warrant setting the execution for April 14, 1996. Four days before that, Simmons was granted another stay.

Soon, the Defender Association of Philadelphia, which represents death row inmates on appeal, found for the first time that his former girlfriend, Pletcher, had helped police secretly tape-record Simmons.

After denying repeatedly on the witness stand that any such tapes had been made, Rok later admitted that they existed. On the tapes, Simmons declared his innocence to Pletcher 19 separate times.

The appeal also brought out the fact that Rok never told defense attorneys that Cobaugh was unable to pick Simmons' picture out of an array of mug shots on her first attempt and that Rok helped her avoid the gun purchase charges. Prosecutors also admitted helping witness Gary Blough obtain early release from his parole violation.

Even more significantly, Rok admitted that he never told the defense that Cobaugh's clothes were tested for forensic evidence and yielded hair samples that didn't match Simmons'.

Despite all of those admissions, Cambria County Common Pleas Judge Thomas Swope refused to grant Simmons a new trial.

Now his only hope is the hearing Friday before U.S. District Judge Sean McLaughlin.

In a recent letter, Simmons said he wasn't surprised that Cobaugh now admits she never could identify him.

"It's something that I've been saying for years, to the point that I felt like the boy who cried wolf," he wrote. "She just can't keep changing her story when she wants to, and think that she's going to get away with it."

Cambria County District Attorney David Tulowitzki, who was not in office during the Simmons trial, refused to comment, as did Rok and the prosecutors who handled the case.

Simmons' attorneys wouldn't allow him to be interviewed for this story. But in a letter, he wrote:

"During my life there have been crimes for which I have been in prison and for which I served my time and for which I am sorry. However, now I am waiting my turn on death row for a crime which I did not commit."

Innocence Institute investigates

The Innocence Institute of Western Pennsylvania at Point Park University is an investigative reporting organization that probes allegations of wrongful convictions while helping aspiring journalists learn investigative reporting skills.

It is a partnership between the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Point Park and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Post-Gazette Staff Writer Bill Moushey is director of the institute and an assistant professor at Point Park.

With Moushey's guidance over the past year, Jamie Keaney, an undergraduate student in the school's journalism program, and Nathan Crabbe, a graduate student assistant assigned to the Institute, read thousands of pages of court records, interviewed witnesses and visited crime scenes before writing the Simmons story.

Crabbe can be reached at ncrabb@ppc.edu. Keaney can be reached at jjkeane@ppc.edu. Moushey can be reached by e-mail at bmoushey@ppc.edu. Mail can be sent to the program in care of: The Innocence Institute of Western Pennsylvania, Point Park University, Room 305, 201 Wood St., Pittsburgh, PA 15222-1884.

The Institute examines allegations of wrongful conviction in only those cases within a 100-mile radius of Pittsburgh. Additional information can be found by calling 412-765-3164 or visiting its Web site: www.ppc.edu/~innocence.

Complete List of US, Canadian and Australian Innocence Projects

Death Penalty Issues
Police/Prosecutor Misconduct
Innocent Imprisoned
Truth in Justice