Pa. collar-bomb trial jury selection begins
ERIE, Pa. (AP) — A defense lawyer hopes evidence of his client’s volatile personality will convince a jury she didn’t mastermind a 2003 bank robbery that turned a pizza delivery man into a walking time bomb.
But that sometimes-abrasive personality was on display — and aimed at the attorney himself — when Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong cursed at him during the first day of jury selection for her federal trial in Erie.
“I either pick the jurors or I walk ... out of here right now!” Diehl-Armstrong proclaimed loudly to her lawyer, Douglas Sughrue, as they reviewed questionnaires filled out by 47 potential jurors on Tuesday.
The outburst was her second of the day. Earlier, she admonished Sughrue about problems she was having with prison officials. No jurors were in the courtroom during either outburst.
Diehl-Armstrong, already imprisoned for killing her boyfriend, is charged with armed bank robbery and other counts for allegedly hatching a complicated scheme that left 46-year-old Brian Wells dead. Federal prosecutors say Wells was forced to rob a bank while wearing a bomb locked to his neck, a device that exploded as he sat handcuffed in a parking lot as police waited for a bomb squad to arrive.
Prosecutors contend Diehl-Armstrong hoped the robbery would net $250,000, which she allegedly planned to use to hire her co-defendant and former fishing buddy, Kenneth Barnes, to kill her estranged father. Barnes, 56, has pleaded guilty and is serving 45 years in prison for his role. He’s expected to be a key witness against Diehl-Armstrong.
Sughrue revealed Tuesday that Diehl-Armstrong also will testify.
He referenced her planned testimony when he asked the judge to allow Diehl-Armstrong’s longtime psychiatrist to take the stand. Sughrue argued that Dr. Robert Sadoff’s testimony is necessary to explain Diehl-Armstrong’s bipolar and paranoid disorders, and therefore to explain some of the things the jury is likely to see and hear when she takes the stand.
U.S. District Judge Sean McLaughlin agreed to allow Sadoff’s testimony, providing the doctor doesn’t try to convince the jury that Diehl-Armstrong’s mental illness diminished her culpability for the alleged crimes.
If Tuesday’s proceedings were any indication, Sadoff will have much to explain.
Besides yelling at her attorney about jury selection, she exploded in a torrent of obscenities at Sughrue soon after she was brought into the courtroom.
Diehl-Armstrong is being treated for metastasized breast cancer and was apparently upset about not getting her medication before Tuesday’s court appearance. After Sughrue told her how she might better raise that issue with jail officials, she blew up.
“I don’t want to hear about how to talk to the prison people,” she said. “I’ve been in prison for ... years. I don’t need Doug Sughrue, who’s never been in prison a single day, telling me how to act.”
She went on to berate Sughrue for losing certain pretrial arguments, saying that he has “handcuffed” her and loudly shouting that she shouldn’t have even been indicted in the case.
No jurors were selected for the case Tuesday as Sughrue, prosecutors and the judge instead discussed potential jurors’ questionnaires. The nine-page documents ask those in the jury pool 51 questions designed to determine if they have any biases about the case or the issues involved — including Diehl-Armstrong’s extensive history of mental illness.
Sughrue is the third defense attorney to represent Diehl-Armstrong. She fired the other two because she was dissatisfied with what she perceived to be a lack of competence, and even criticized how one of them dressed.
Diehl-Armstrong has admitted killing two lovers. The first, a jury ruled, was justified during an abusive relationship in the 1980s. She’s still serving a prison sentence for shooting the second man because, federal prosecutors contend, he knew too much about the bank robbery plot.
No family members were present in the courtroom Tuesday, not even relatives of Brian Wells.
All but anonymous in life, Wells now has his own Wikipedia entry, and bootleg TV news video of his grisly demise by a time bomb strapped to his neck is available online.
The government has asserted that Wells was in on the plot. Prosecutors said he likely didn’t realize until it was too late that he would be forced to commit the robbery with the bomb locked onto his neck. His family says they don’t believe it.
Prosecutors say Diehl-Armstrong arranged to have someone order pizzas so that Wells could be accosted at gunpoint, made to wear the bomb and be given nine pages of detailed instructions about how to rob the bank and, afterward, get free of the bomb.
He died sitting handcuffed in a parking lot, waiting for a bomb squad and shouting to state troopers taking cover nearby: “I’m not lying! I’m not doing this! This isn’t me!”
Diehl-Armstrong is serving a seven- to 20-year prison sentence for shooting her boyfriend, William Roden, 45, two weeks before Wells’ death.
Diehl-Armstrong pleaded guilty but mentally ill to that killing after Roden’s body was found in a freezer at the home of another former boyfriend, William Rothstein. Rothstein, who has since died of cancer, is alleged to have crafted the collar bomb and ordered the pizzas.