The state Superior Court reversed a California woman’s conviction of conspiracy to commit homicide and decreed she’ll receive a new sentence on other charges stemming from a series of burglaries that ended in the death of her elderly neighbor.
The three-judge panel hearing the appeal of Diane McClelland, 58, found in an 18-page opinion issued Monday that “evidence was not sufficient to prove (McClelland’s) participation in a conspiracy to kill” Evelyn Stepko, a 92-year-old widow who’d lived near McClelland’s family in the Mon Valley borough’s Granville neighborhood.
“There was no evidence proffered to establish (McClelland’s) specific intent to kill the victim,” read the opinion, which was authored by Judge John Bender. “The only theory upon which the jury could have concluded that (McClelland) was guilty of a conspiracy to commit homicide is not legally cognizable.”
Pittsburgh attorney Stephen C. Paul, who was appointed by the court to represent McClelland during her appeal, said in an email the “decision confirms what Ms. McClelland has asserted since day one. She took no part in the death of the victim.”
“The decision is a testament that, while the criminal justice system is not perfect, it is designed to ensure that convictions are just,” Paul added.
McClelland was sentenced to 241/2 to 49 years following her trial before Washington County Judge John DiSalle. She is currently imprisoned at the State Correctional Institution-Cambridge Springs, a minimum-security facility in Crawford County. The bulk of the sentence – 20 to 40 years – comes from the homicide-conspiracy conviction.
The Superior Court panel also vacated her sentence and ordered a new one on the remaining convictions, which include dealing in the proceeds of unlawful activity, receiving stolen property, providing false information to law enforcement and conspiracy offenses.
The appellate panel rejected McClelland’s bid to have those convictions reversed, finding the government had “clearly established a conspiracy to burgle the victim’s home, and to receive and spend the illicit gains derived therefrom.”
A summary of Diane McClelland’s trial quoted in the appellate court’s opinion said that while no evidence showed McClelland “physically participated” in the home invasions, prosecutors made the case that she’d conspired with her husband and her stepson to carry them out.
Evidence from the trial showed that McClelland had purchased real estate, covered home renovations and bought a late-model Lincoln Navigator with cash from a number of burglaries that occurred at Stepko’s house between August 2009 and July 18, 2011, when she was found stabbed to death there.
Her husband, David A. McClelland, pleaded guilty to murdering Stepko in 2012, and later died of natural causes at SCI-Greene.
His son, David J. McClelland, was found guilty in Stepko’s murder following a trial in 2013. The former Monongahela and Washington Township, Fayette County, part-time police officer, who is now 33, is serving a life sentence at that same prison.
Authorities believed the elder David McClelland had gone into Stepko’s house thinking she wasn’t home, but she surprised him while he was trying to carry out another burglary.
Stepko, who had amassed more than $1 million, was so frugal her house wasn’t even connected to the public water system. She had kept much of her money in cash and stockpiled it in her house.
“Large amounts of moldy and musty currency” dating to the 1980s and ‘90s at the McClellands’ home, according to the summary included in opinion.
Washington County prosecutors have 30 days to appeal the court’s decision if they choose to do so. District Attorney Gene Vittone didn’t immediately return a message on Wednesday morning.