In an 11-page ruling, Delaware County Common Pleas Judge Barry C. Dozor denied convicted killer William F. Smithson’s request for a new trial.
Smithson is convicted of the 2006 strangulation death of coworker Jason Shephard inside Smithson’s home.
But advocates for Smithson say there’s no direct evidence linking him to the murder.
They say Smithson’s first-degree murder conviction was due largely to homophobia and that police failed to investigate F. Bruce Covington, who was inside Smithson’s home when Shephard died.
But authorities say Smithson administered the date-rape drug gamma hydroxybutyric acid, or GHB, to Shephard and tried to rape him prior to strangling him.
Covington was convicted of drug-related charges stemming from the incident but prosecutors say he wasn’t Shephard’s killer.
In a prior interview, Smithson said he was heavily drugged by Covington and passed out while Shephard was still alive.
He maintained that when he awoke, still groggy from the drugs, he discovered Shephard’s body, panicked and tried to cover-up the situation. Smithson was arrested two days later, after telling a friend the corpse was in his house.
Smithson contends his trial attorney, G. Guy Smith, served him ineffectively by not properly investigating Covington, because the police failed to conduct a proper investigation.
In court papers, Smithson claimed that Smith failed to investigate Covington’s movements and phone calls immediately after Shephard’s death.
But in his Jan. 14 ruling, Dozor said Smith adequately investigated Covington.
“[Smithson] has failed to demonstrate that the alternate investigative pursuits he has suggested would have yielded anything beneficial to [his] defense,” Dozor wrote, adding that “since [Smithson] has not indicated what type of potential evidence the proposed investigations would have recovered, he has not established he suffered actual prejudice.”
Dozor also implied that direct evidence connects Smithson to Shephard’s murder.
“[Evidence] indicated that the DNA of Jason Shepard [sic] was present on the outside of the gloves used in the commission of the crime, and the DNA of [Smithson] was present on the inside of the same gloves.”
But Smithson’s advocates say the DNA evidence could be the result of Smithson moving Shephard’s corpse to his basement, not strangling him.
Smithson also faulted his trial attorney for having state trooper Joseph R. McCunney read statements by Covington to jurors, saying the delivery gave undue credibility to Covington and prejudiced jurors.
But Dozor said it was reasonable to have McCunney read Covington’s statements.
“[Smith] did not have other viable options other than Trooper McCunney that could present Mr. Covington’s statements to the jury,” Dozor wrote. “[Smithson] failed to present any evidence regarding how [Smith] would have successfully presented the evidence regarding Mr. Covington through a different witness.”
Smithson also said Smith failed to ensure Smithson’s right to confront a serologist, a DNA specialist and a relative of Smithson who participated in the case.
Additionally, Smithson contends Smith failed to cross-examine a damaging government witness about his alleged substance-abuse issues. That witness died in 2013.
But Dozor dismissed those contentions, noting that Smithson failed to show how the trial outcome would have changed if the participants had been treated differently.
Smithson, 48, who is incarcerated at the state prison in Huntingdon, has 30 days to appeal the ruling to the state Superior Court.