Conviction overturned in 1997 murder case

Al­most 19 years after Paul McK­ernan was sen­tenced to life in pris­on for killing a former room­mate with a base­ball bat, the United States Court of Ap­peals tossed out the con­vic­tion.

A Holmes­burg man con­victed of murder in 1998 last week had his con­vic­tion over­turned.

Paul McK­ernan was con­victed by a Com­mon Pleas Court judge of killing Mark Gib­son, a former cowork­er and room­mate, by hit­ting him in the head with an alu­min­um base­ball bat.

Al­most 19 years after he was sen­tenced to life in pris­on with no chance of pa­role, a three-judge pan­el of the United States Court of Ap­peals for the Third Cir­cuit tossed out the con­vic­tion.

The court did so be­cause Judge Lisa Richette, who died in 2007, met with Gib­son’s moth­er and broth­er in her cham­bers dur­ing the tri­al in an ef­fort to con­vince them that her repu­ta­tion for le­ni­ency was not true.

The late act­or Charlton He­ston, one­time pres­id­ent of the NRA, had been in Phil­adelphia a month be­fore the tri­al for the group’s con­ven­tion. In a speech, he re­ferred to Richette as “Let ‘em Loose Lisa.” Former May­or Frank L. Rizzo gave Richette the nick­name.

The Gib­son fam­ily also cre­ated a web­site chron­ic­ling Richette’s le­ni­ent repu­ta­tion.

In the 75-minute meet­ing, held after the pro­sec­u­tion’s case ended and be­fore the de­fense began its case, Richette told Be­atrice and Dav­id Gib­son that they were lucky to have Mark Gilson as the pro­sec­utor, call­ing him “one of the best DAs in the world.”

The court faul­ted McK­ernan’s law­yer, who was in the meet­ing with the fam­ily, for not ob­ject­ing or ask­ing Richette to re­cuse her­self.

Richette found McK­ernan guilty and, since the pro­sec­u­tion was not seek­ing the death pen­alty, sen­tenced him to the man­dat­ory life in pris­on.

McK­ernan, now 52, is housed at the State Cor­rec­tion­al In­sti­tu­tion at Somer­set.

The dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice has 60 days from the Feb. 28 court de­cision to de­cide to ap­peal the rul­ing or try McK­ernan again.

McK­ernan and Gib­son were friends and fel­low auto mech­an­ics. In May 1997, Gib­son moved in­to a spare bed­room at the McK­ernan house, on the 8500 block of Marsden St. He left the house a few weeks later.

Gib­son, 27, went to the house at about 6 p.m. on Sept. 17, 1997 to re­trieve a cable tele­vi­sion box that he had left when he moved out of the house. He was ac­com­pan­ied by a friend, Joe Ro­gers.

At the tri­al in Ju­ly 1998, Ro­gers test­i­fied that Gib­son and McK­ernan began ar­guing about money. He said McK­ernan grabbed a bat from the in­side of his front door. Gib­son went to his Monte Carlo and got a pry bar. He told McK­ernan that if he broke his car win­dows with the base­ball bat, Gib­son would do the same to his car. Ul­ti­mately, he said he would come back for the cable box later.

Ro­gers got in­to the driver’s seat, saw Gib­son reach for the pas­sen­ger seat door, then heard a loud thump. He got out of the car and found his friend bleed­ing on the ground. Ro­gers told McK­ernan to call an am­bu­lance.

“F—- him. He got what he de­served,’ ” Ro­gers test­i­fied that McK­ernan re­spon­ded.

An­oth­er wit­ness, Dav­id Thompson, said McK­ernan hit Gib­son from be­hind.

McK­ernan test­i­fied that he did not hand over the cable box be­cause Gib­son had not paid him for a tool tray. The de­fend­ant said Gib­son walked over to his car with the pry bar and asked, “How do you like your pre­cious Lin­coln now?”

McK­ernan said Gib­son at­tacked him with the pry bar, hit­ting him in the fore­arms. That’s when McK­ernan said he no­ticed a base­ball bat his son had left lean­ing against the fence. Ac­cord­ing to his testi­mony, he picked up the bat and, as Gib­son was swinging the pry bar, hit him in the chest with a one-handed, back­hand swing. The blow, McK­ernan said, caused Gib­son to fall and hit his head.

As­sist­ant Med­ic­al Ex­am­iner Ed­win Lieber­man said Gib­son suffered a frac­tured skull and oth­er in­tern­al and ex­tern­al in­jur­ies. His death was caused by a blow to the head, Lieber­man test­i­fied, not by his fall.

In the end, Richette called McK­ernan “vi­ol­ent” and “mind­less.” She ruled that he ac­ted with pre­med­it­a­tion and in­tent to kill. ••

You can reach at twaring@bsmphilly.com.

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