Court orders new trial in Centre County day care assault

A judge has vacated the sentence for a Centre County day care provider and sent the case back to Bellefonte for a new trial.

On Monday, state Superior Court judges Victor Stabile, Jack Panella and James Fitzgerald ruled on the appeal of Jalene McClure.

McClure was convicted in September 2014 of an August 2010 assault on a 5-month-old child. The jury returned guilty verdicts on charges of aggravated assault, simple assault, reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of child for the incident that left the baby with a fractured skull, a subdural hematoma, brain-cell damage and retinal hemorrhaging.

She was sentenced in October 2014 to serve 10 to 20 years in prison.

But McClure’s case ended up being the start of a year of issues in the Centre County Courthouse.

A month after her sentence was delivered by Judge Bradley Lunsford, President Judge Thomas King Kistler removed Lunsford from hearing criminal cases other than DUIs.

Within days of sentencing, McClure’s attorney, Bernard Cantorna, filed an open records request for phone records that showed text messages between Lunsford and members of the District Attorney’s Office, some that were suggested to have been made ex parte communications during trial.

That was one of the issues McClure’s counsel raised in her Superior Court appeal, but it was not one of the issues that prompted the judges to send the case back to Centre County. Stabile, in his opinion, called that issue moot as Lunsford has already retired from the bench and been replaced by Judge Katie Oliver in the past election.

What the panel did find were three other instances where they agreed the defense had reason to appeal.

The defense argued that Lunsford abused his discretion in admitting evidence relating to McClure’s divorce, two years after the baby’s 2010 injury, calling it irrelevant, prejudicial and a violation of spousal privilege. The District Attorney’s Office countered that references to McClure’s mental state in the evidence did not cover any time other than the incident.

The court disagreed, saying the questions “were not even remotely restricted to that time and several specifically referenced August of 2012.”

“We do not find the error harmless,” Stabile wrote.

He said that alone would have been enough to prompt a vacation of the judgment and a granting of new trial. It was not, however, the only error they found.

McClure also argued that the jury should have seen the full content of her written account of the incident, rather than a redaction, claiming it turned an explanation into a confession.

“We agree with appellant that she should have been able to correct any misleading impression by presenting her entire statement to the jury. The trial court’s refusal to do so constitutes an error of law that we cannot consider harmless,” Stabile wrote.

So did allowing the admission of opinions from the arresting officer and a Children and Youth Services employee, something the court agreed impacted McClure’s credibility.

The court did not agree with several other raised points, including Lunsford allowing the arresting officer to demonstrate the way McClure said she fell while holding the baby, issues with the mother’s testimony and complaints about how information about McClure’s day care business was allowed to be presented.

McClure also argued that her sentence was excessive, but that issue was dismissed as moot since the sentence was already vacated in the order.

“We are very disappointed the Superior Court ordered a new trial based upon the jury not hearing a few sentences from the defendant’s written statement,” said Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller. “It is impossible to see how that could have made any difference in the outcome of a multiday trial with two renowned prosecution experts who testified that the injuries were a result of deliberate child abuse and her defense was ‘accidental’ trip and fall.”

Parks Miller said she may take the case to a higher court.

“We are considering our appeal options with the family because the Supreme Court does not always agree that the Superior Court gets it right,” she said. “We are also ready and able to retry this defendant again if necessary — it is a very important case and a strong case and this child almost died from the injuries she sustained from the abuse. We are committed to ensuring that justice is served for this child no matter what path we choose.”

According to the state Department of Corrections, McClure remains incarcerated at Cambridge Springs state prison, a minimum-security women’s facility in Crawford County.

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce