A Washington woman serving life in prison for killing her newborn baby in 2004 had her sentence vacated last week after the state Superior Court ruled her trial attorney did not properly advise her on merits of taking a plea deal offered by prosecutors.
Jessica Chappel Rizor should have been given better advice from her counsel to plead guilty to lesser charges that would have offered a significantly shorter sentence, the Superior Court ruled late Friday while ordering that she either be tried again or permitted to negotiate a new plea deal.
“It’s as if the trial never happened,” said attorney Josh Camson, who represented Rizor through her recent appeals. “Huge. Hugely significant for us. We succeeded in showing that she did not have proper counsel for taking a plea.”
Rizor was accused of killing her newborn daughter Nov. 26, 2004, by wrapping the baby in a plastic bag and placing her in the trash. While Rizor claimed the infant was stillborn, an autopsy determined the full-term baby was alive and died of asphyxiation. Prosecutors at the time alleged she hid the pregnancy from her family and friends, and it was her then-husband who discovered the child’s body in the trash.
Rizor, who is now 44, was convicted of first-degree murder, concealing the death of a child and abuse of a corpse following her trial in 2008 and sentenced to life in prison without parole. However, prosecutors had previously offered her a deal to plead guilty but mentally ill to third degree murder in exchange for a 5½- to- 30-year sentence, but her defense attorney, Robert Brady, never fully explained the consequence of rejecting that offer and going to trial, the Superior Court ruled. Instead, Brady advised her to use a “diminished mental capacity” defense that Judge John DiSalle ruled would not be admissible during the trial.
“Had counsel advised (Rizor) to take the plea and (Rizor) thereby accepted the advice, she would have received a sentence of 5½ to 30 years of incarceration – instead of the life without the possibility of parole sentence that she is currently serving,” the court wrote.
During subsequent appeals, Brady was never available for hearings after moving to Thailand. DiSalle rejected multiple appeals, including Camson’s attempt in 2018 to get her resentenced on terms similar to the original plea deal offer. Camson said Friday’s ruling resets the entire process from the beginning.
“Hopefully, the case goes back to the trial court level,” Camson said. “It’s as if we go back to square one.”
He expected to speak to Rizor today about her options since he was unable to contact her Monday due to the federal holiday. She is being held at SCI-Muncy prison in Lycoming County, although it was not immediately known when she would be transferred back to the Washington County jail for the renewed proceedings.
District Attorney Jason Walsh has 30 days to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court. Walsh said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon that he was aware of the ruling, but had not read the entire order due to the holiday.
“I’m not sure,” Walsh said of his next steps. “However, I will review (the ruling) and then obviously have a better comment for you.”
In room 101 in California Area Elementary School, a brightly colored classroom with a “Shoot for the Moon” banner hanging outside the front door, more than a dozen students were happily engaged in a variety of projects on a recent Thursday.
A group of third- and fourth-graders were assembling a rain barrel for a project to help reduce storm water runoff; other students were studying languages – among them, Spanish, French, Welch and Latin. One fifth-grader was researching coral reefs, while a classmate was working on coding and studying about Mt. Everest.
In all, 26 students in grades 1 through 10 in California Area School District participate in Remake Learning Network’s Moonshot Grant program.
CASD was awarded a $70,000 grant and implemented a pilot program – founded on Montessori curriculum and other instructional sources, that develops an individual learning plan for every participating student, based on their interests.
“It’s their ‘passion class.’ Anything they’re passionate about and want to learn more about, they can do it here,” said teacher Heather Nicholson. “When we first met with parents and students to talk about the program, we said, ‘The world is your oyster, what do you want to learn?’”
Students participate in regular classes, but as part of the Moonshot program, they work with Nicholson on special projects they want to pursue, either individually or as a group.
Other topics students are studying this year are the American Revolution, bees, outer space, and finances and budgeting. Ally Neil, a second-grade student, has been learning French and taking ballet lessons.
Students don’t receive a grade for the yearlong class.
“There is a lot of hands-on learning and flexibility. We want students to be engaged, excited about learning, and learning about things they’re interested in. There are no grades, no grade levels, no boxes for them to fit in,” said Nicholson.
Fifth-grader Adeline Hatfield, who plans to become a marine biologist, is studying both Spanish and learning about aquatic life and coral reefs.
“I really love Moonshot. I think it’s a better learning environment because I get to study about what I want to learn about and learn it at my own pace. It’s a lot of fun. I love coming here,” she said.
Three groups of students, ranging from elementary to high school students, are assembling, painting and distributing rain barrels in the community through Barrels by the Bay, a nonprofit organization that provides Coca-Cola syrup barrels to participants, who convert them into rain barrels, paint them and donate them.
The students are learning about the world’s water issues and the importance of water conservation efforts.
In a solo project, fifth-grader Max Todd, who was adopted from Russia, decided to focus on building 3D printers and learning about the country from which he was adopted.
Fifth-grader Ian Grodz, who was working on Bitsbox, coding projects that teach students how to program apps, also wanted to tackle a project about Mt. Everest, a subject that fascinates him. Grodz discussed his future plans to become an engineer and inventor, and his goal to work on rocket ships for NASA.
“I’m very interested in Mt. Everest and everything about it. I want to learn about how people survive, or how people don’t survive,” he said.
Grodz described Moonshot as “awesome.”
“I like it because, sometimes in fourth grade, we learned something and I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, fifth grade is coming and I get to learn new things, but then it was a repeat of things I know,” he explained. “With this, I get to learn what I want to learn at my own pace. It’s cool.”
California University of Pennsylvania plans to study the program, and if it determines Moonshot benefits students, CASD will pursue funding to continue and possibly expand the program.
Additionally, the Washington County Community Foundation awarded a $1,000 grant to CASD for Moonshot.
After seeing a minuscule increase last year, enrollment at California University of Pennsylvania fell by 5.4% this fall, according to data released Monday by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).
Cal U.’s head count went from 6,885 students to 6,512. Cal U. was not alone, however – 12 of 14 institutions with the PASSHE saw enrollment dips, with Clarion University reporting the sharpest decrease of 12.1% fewer students this fall compared to this time last year, followed by East Stroudsburg at an even 12%.
There are now 88,651 students enrolled within the PASSHE system, 5,057 fewer than last year and more than 30,000 fewer than in 2010, when enrollment within the state-owned schools reached its peak. Enrollment is now at its lowest level in three decades. Officials with the state system have maintained that demographic trends within Pennsylvania, with its aging population and decreasing number of college-age students, are the primary culprits behind the wilting enrollment numbers.
Wendy Mackall, a spokeswoman for Cal U., referred all questions to the PASSHE office. Cody Jones, a spokesman for the PASSHE, said the steep declines could also be due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“We suspect that we are finally seeing the COVID effect on enrollment that some expected to see last fall,” Jones said.
In response to long-term trends, the PASSHE’s board of governors approved a merger plan over the summer for six of the 14 campuses within the system. Cal U. is now sharing administrative and academic functions with Clarion and Edinboro universities, while Lock Haven, Mansfield and Bloomsburg universities in the eastern part of the commonwealth have also joined forces.
“Our universities continue to pursue aggressive enrollment management and recruiting strategies in response to the trends we are seeing around the country,” Jones added. “At the same time, our system redesign efforts are aimed at righting the ship, including growing enrollments, especially among groups of students that have been underserved.
Th only two campuses to see enrollment increases were Mansfield University, which saw its student body increase by 11 students, and Cheyney University, which added 15 more students. Mansfield has 1,803 students enrolled, and Cheyney has 642. West Chester University saw the smallest decrease from last year, losing just 79 students, or 0.4%, from last year. It has 17,640 students enrolled on its campus, the largest in the state system.
Washington County is still looking for poll workers to help with the Nov. 2 general election, although the need is not as urgent as it has been in previous off-year general elections.
Elections Director Melanie Ostrander said they are well-equipped to handle the upcoming election with enough poll workers at most locations, but are still looking for people to staff precincts in Carroll and North Strabane townships and Donora.
The office also wants to have enough alternates available in case people are unable to work at the last minute. Poll workers can be staffed at any precinct in the county in which they’re registered to vote.
Poll workers receive at least $130 for working the day, and will need to be trained before Election Day. Both Washington and Greene counties held training for poll workers last week, although there are additional options for individual training over the next three weeks, Ostrander said.
Ostrander said it’s better for people to apply now, but they’re accepting new poll workers until Oct. 29, which is the Friday before the election.
In Greene County, the elections office is “adequately staffed” for Nov. 2, Elections Director Judy Snyder said.
“Our judges do a great job of reaching out to the voters in their precinct to recruit workers,” Snyder said.
The most difficult precincts to find poll workers are in some of the outlying communities with smaller populations, she said. The elections office still is looking for poll workers to help, if needed.
“With that being said, the department is always looking for new recruits to add to our team of poll workers,” Snyder said.
The Pennsylvania Department of State said it usually needs more than 40,000 poll workers statewide to run an election. More information about being a poll worker, including an online sign-up sheet, can be found on the state’s election website at www.vote.pa.gov. People must be a registered voter in the county where they would like to work and agree to work the entire election day.
The Washington County elections office can be reached at 724-228-6750, while Greene County can be reached at 724-852-5230.
The last day to register to vote for the general election is Oct. 18, while the last day to request a mail-in ballot is Oct. 26. Unlike last year’s general election, mail-in ballots must be received by the county staff no later than 8 p.m. on Nov. 2 in order to be counted.