Discredited witnesses, investigation flaws steered 20-minute verdict

By Jeanne Starmack

The defense attorney was able to discredit witnesses and expose flaws in the murder investigation.

NEW CASTLE, Pa. — The murder case against Michael Roberts, accused in the 2005 slaying of another man to get his OxyContin, was a tough one.

“But we knew that going in,” Atty. Daniel Soom, an assistant Lawrence County district attorney, said Thursday, a day after a jury took only about 20 minutes to acquit Roberts, 29, of the murder. If convicted, Roberts could have gotten the death penalty.

The victim in the case, Danny Palumbo, 48, had been badly beaten in the basement of his East Long Avenue home the morning of March 25, 2005.

He had been beaten, investigators determined later, with a 65-pound swivel-seat bar stool. He suffered so much damage to his head and face that the first police officer on the scene thought he’d been shot. New Castle Police Officer Richard Conti said as testimony began May 26 that Palumbo’s injuries looked like they could have been caused by a gunshot point-blank to his face. Palumbo died the next day at St. Elizabeth Health Center in Youngstown.

Marissa Palumbo, then 14, was the one who’d found her father lying face-up on the basement floor. Now an adult with a year of college behind her, she acknowledged with a stoic nod after the trial’s closing arguments Wednesday that it was hard to sit in the courtroom and go through it all again.

That was just before lunch.

The case was about to go to the jury, and Lawrence County Common Pleas President Judge Dominick Motto’s instructions to the panel were expected to take awhile. There was speculation, as there always is, about how long it would take the jury to return a verdict.

It was to deliberate a criminal homicide charge, and could have returned a verdict of first-, second- or third-degree.

The verdict came back around 2 p.m. Defense attorney Lee M. Rothman was sitting down to his lunch and had about three bites of salad, he said, before he got the call that the jury was coming back.

Susan Palumbo, Danny’s wife, said family members didn’t even make it back to the courtroom before the verdict was read.

“They should have waited,” she said. “It made it 10 times worse.”

“She was very upset,” said Susan of Marissa. “We all went home and screamed and cried.”

“We got it out of our systems. I didn’t sleep so good,” Susan told The Vindicator Thursday.

The Lawrence County jail said Roberts left there Thursday. He’d spent 21‚Ñ2 years there awaiting trial.

Rothman said Roberts plans to fix up an old house in New Castle that he inherited from his late father. Roberts himself could not be reached.

“Oh God,” said Susan when she learned of his plan. “I can see ... [Roberts’ house] from my house.”

She is still living in the East Long Avenue house; people have asked her why she doesn’t move, she said.

“I tell myself, ‘He didn’t die there,’” she said. “What can I do? I can’t afford another house.”

Life at that house had always seemed normal for her family, she said, despite her husband’s selling OxyContin out of the basement there.

There weren’t a lot of people always coming and going, she said, adding that she wants people to know it wasn’t a drug house.

Her husband, she said, worked all his life as a conductor for CSX Railroad and at Ellwood City Forge before going on disability. He had a liver transplant two years before his death and had a prescription for the OxyContin, an opioid that’s legally a powerful painkiller and hooks abusers in the same way heroin does.

He was estranged from his wife and mostly living in the basement because she’d found out he was selling his pills. She doesn’t know why he started to do that, she said, speculating that making money off the city’s subculture of addicts also was addictive.

She had contemplated divorce, but the couple had talked, and he was going to stop selling the pills. She thought he had.

It was the OxyContin, the prosecution believed, that led to Palumbo’s death — the commonwealth contended Roberts wanted to steal Palumbo’s pills and went to his home that morning to do so.

The trial was a window into a subculture of young addicts who mostly used one trusted middleman to get OxyContin from Palumbo.

It also was a window into an investigation that was marred by mistakes from a detective working on his first homicide.

New Castle Det. Kevin Seelbaugh acknowledged under Rothman’s cross-examination that he had made mistakes, from not documenting information in reports to not thoroughly checking Roberts’ claim of an alibi — that he was asleep on the couch at the house where he was staying at the time the murder took place.

Rothman made much of that alibi and of the fact that there was another young addict who had talked about robbing Palumbo just two days before the killing.

He also made an issue of the fact that DNA on the bar stool matched Palumbo and an unidentified person. There was never any physical evidence linking Roberts to the crime, he said.

Seelbaugh told The Vindicator last week that even though he made mistakes in the investigation, he still believes the right person was arrested.

He and the prosecution had based the homicide charge on the word of three “jail-house snitches,” Rothman said, who indicated Roberts had confessed the murder to them.

Police had not identified the bar stool as the murder weapon to the media, and Seelbaugh was waiting for someone to mention it, he said. One of the three witnesses did, 14 months after the murder. In jail on federal drug charges, Jermaine Flamer told investigators who were seeking his cooperation in other drug cases that Roberts had told him he’d used the bar stool to kill Palumbo.

Flamer and one of the other two witnesses, Lawrence County jail inmate Daniel Winterbottom, had heard “on the street” that Roberts had been questioned, Rothman said. They had also heard about the bar stool, Rothman contended, because there was talk about it on the street even though it was not reported in the media.

Rothman said Flamer and Winterbottom identified Roberts because he was vulnerable — he was in jail on another matter at the time. And they testified to get reductions in jail time; they were not credible, he argued.

The third witness ended up not testifying.

Soom acknowledged that the witnesses weren’t credible, and that’s what crippled the case.

He and Rothman said the jury indicated the prosecution didn’t have enough evidence to support its case.

Assistant D.A. Soom said he was still surprised that the jury came back with a verdict so soon.

Rothman said he believes the panel listened to testimony carefully. Even so, he called the swiftness of the verdict “pretty amazing.”

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