Convicted Ohio trucker loses appeal of 1994 murder conviction

An Ohio truck driver will not be getting a new trial for his 1994 murder conviction.

The state Superior Court last week reaffirmed the 2014 ruling of Centre County Judge Jonathan D. Grine, denying the Post Conviction Relief Act petition of James Robert Cruz Jr., 58.

Dawn Marie Birnbaum was 17 when she was strangled and her body dumped near state Route 26 in Spring Township in March 1993. Cruz was convicted of murder and theft after a jury spent 15 hours deliberating his case. He was acquitted of charges of raping and kidnapping the runaway girl from a Maine boarding school.

Cruz protested his innocence from the beginning. Asked for a statement at his sentencing immediately after his conviction, Cruz said, “Nothing, other than I didn’t do it,” according to reports at the time.

He originally appealed, with the Superior Court reaffirming the sentence of life imprisonment in 1995 and denying an appeal in 1996. In 1997, he presented a PCRA petition, but then, there was nothing. According to the court, his petition “languished for the next 15 years, until for unstated reasons, it came to the court’s attention.”

A new attorney was appointed in 2012, and in 2013 an amended petition was filed and a hearing held. That petition was denied in 2014.

Prosecutors argued that a new trial then, more than 20 years after Birnbaum’s death, would prejudice their side. Since the conviction, six trial witnesses died, including lead investigator William Madden, pathologist Thomas Cawthern, deputy coroner Warren Chambers, and FBI agent Gordon Johnson. Another nine, including an FBI analyst, a forensic scientist and a Maine State Police detective, cannot be located.

And then there is one of the biggest holes, the disappearance of the original prosecutor, former Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar, who vanished in April 2005.

Judge David Grine heard the original case. In 2003, 10 years after the murder and six years since Cruz had taken any appeals action, he ordered the evidence in the case to be destroyed. Evidence marked as exhibits at trial are still in the court’s possession but the additional evidence is now gone.

“We are very happy that the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling (that) dismissed his PCRA. At some point, victims deserve finality of verdict,” said current District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller.

She echoed Gricar’s sentiments from the night of the conviction.

“I wanted Mrs. (Nancy) Lindeman (the victim’s mother) to have the satisfaction of seeing him sentenced tonight,” Gricar said then.

Lindeman was one of those trial witnesses who has since died. Cruz remains at Fayette state prison.