This article was originally published on Goerie.com September 13, 2017.
DNA evidence has again failed to reopen the case against Raymond Payne, the former Strong Vincent High School teacher convicted of first-degree murder 40 years ago.
In a 2-1 decision, the state Superior Court ruled that the newly discovered DNA evidence fell short of forcing new proceedings for Payne, convicted in 1977 in the 1975 strangulation death of 16-year-old student Debbie Gama.
The majority opinion, released Thursday, affirmed an April 2016 ruling by Erie County Judge John Garhart, who turned away Payne’s appeal — his sixth attempt to get his conviction and mandatory life sentence overturned.
As Garhart and other jurists and appeals courts have done, the Superior Court panel found that the DNA evidence was not exculpatory.
The evidence showed Payne’s DNA did not match the seminal material found on Gama, which Payne said proved he did not rape her. But the Superior Court agreed with Garhart and found that whether Payne raped Gama was immaterial to whether he intentionally strangled her.
Payne, 80, is at the State Correctional Institution at Laurel Highlands, near Somerset. He could ask the state Supreme Court to hear the case, which would extend one of the longest-running appeals in recent Erie County history.
Payne confessed to killing Gama and he pleaded guilty to a general count of homicide. At a degree-of-guilt hearing, a panel of three Erie County judges convicted him of first-degree murder.
The evidence against Payne included his admission that he killed Gama in Erie County and used concrete blocks and copper wire to try to submerge her body in Cussewago Creek in northern Crawford County.
“Based on this evidence, all of which was presented at the degree-of-guilt hearing, we hold that the outcome of that hearing would not have been different had the results of the DNA testing been available,” according to the 17-page majority opinion, by Senior Superior Court Judge Eugene B. Strassburger.
The Erie County District Attorney’s Office presented evidence at the degree-of-guilt hearing that Payne killed Gama after he sexually assaulted her. But he was not convicted of rape.
In the dissenting opinion, Superior Court Judge Geoff Moulton wrote that he had no doubt that Payne killed Gama, but said that Payne deserved a new degree-of-guilt hearing in light of the DNA evidence.
The defense contended in 1977 that Payne should have been convicted of nothing more than third-degree murder, an unpremeditated killing with malice. If Payne were given a new degree-of-guilt hearing and convicted of third-degree murder, he would most likely by freed. Third-degree murder carries a maximum sentence of 40 years in state prison.
DNA testing was unavailable when Payne was prosecuted. He spent decades trying to get a judge to order the testing of seminal fluid found on Gama’s body. A December 2014 settlement in federal court in Erie between Payne’s lawyers and the Erie County District Attorney’s Office triggered the DNA testing.
In ruling against Payne in April 2016, Garhart found that Payne’s own statement and other evidence established he deliberately garroted Gama with wire while taking bondage photos. Garhart wrote that the DNA evidence suggested that another man was with Payne when Payne killed Gama, though Garhart wrote that the DNA evidence was too degraded to match with another suspect.
Assistant Erie County District Attorney Michael Burns, who is handling the appeal, said the Superior Court panel made “the correct decision.”
Payne’s lead lawyer is Anderson Bailey of the Jones Day law firm in Pittsburgh, which is representing Payne pro bono. Bailey could not be reached for comment.