ERIE, Pa. (AP) — A former northwestern Pennsylvania high school teacher will be getting a new hearing on his conviction in the strangulation death of a student more than four decades ago.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court last week rejected an appeal by Erie County prosecutors of a lower court ruling that 82-year-old Raymond Payne should receive a new degree-of-guilt hearing.
District Attorney Jack Daneri told the Erie Times-News on Friday that he will argue that Payne is guilty of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence.
Payne pleaded guilty to a general count of murder in the 1975 strangulation death of 16-year-old Debbie Gama. A three-judge panel convicted him of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life term without possibility of parole, after a hearing in which he argued that he was guilty at most of only third-degree murder, or an unpremeditated killing with malice
A 6-3 Superior Court decision earlier this year overturned the first-degree conviction and ordered a new degree-of-guilt hearing, citing 2014 tests indicating that Payne's DNA didn't match seminal material found on the body that the court said "would likely result in a different verdict" at a degree-of-guilt hearing.
Payne told investigators in 1976 that Gama died accidentally after he gave her drugs and tied her up to take sexual pictures of her, according to the dissenting opinion in the appeals court ruling.
Daneri said it's unclear whether the hearing will be held before judges or a jury, and said prosecutors would "look to the court for direction" on that.
If Payne is convicted of third-degree murder, the maximum penalty in effect at the time of Payne's conviction — 20 years — would apply, although the maximum penalty has since been raised to 20 to 40 years.
The Gama case received renewed attention when it was featured on the Investigation Discovery channel series "The Lake Erie Murders" in January.
Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com