A man convicted of a 1975 murder after the victim’s son said he remembered his father’s killing 15 years later has asked to be released from prison pending a decision by a federal judge on whether to follow a magistrate’s recommendation that he get a new trial.
The recommendation by U.S. Magistrate Susan Baxter of Erie was not based on the defense’s contention that the victim’s son, John Mudd Jr. _ who was 5 years old at the time his father was killed _ shouldn’t have been allowed to testify at Steven Slutzker’s trial.
Baxter recommended a retrial on the grounds that the trial might have ended differently had numerous undisclosed police reports been provided the defense and had Slutzker’s trial attorney interviewed two alibi witnesses.
The Allegheny County District Attorney’s office is appealing Baxter’s recommendation to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Mike Manko, spokesman for D.A. Steven A. Zappala Jr., said the office wasn’t commenting on the case.
In the meantime, Slutzker’s attorney, Douglas Sughrue, said his client should be released from prison so he can be with his wife.
Slutzker, 50, was arrested in April 1991 after John Mudd Jr. _ then 20 _ told police he remembered events from the night his father was killed on Dec. 28, 1975. He wasn’t interviewed by police in 1975 because his family refused to allow that.
Prosecutors contended that Slutzker was having an affair with Mudd’s wife, Arlene, in 1975.
Previous appeals courts have upheld Slutzker’s 1992 conviction. In the latest appeal, Sughrue said John Mudd Jr. shouldn’t have been allowed to testify since there was no new evidence in the case between 1978 and Slutzker’s 1991 arrest.
“The only change was, they had a 5-year-old kid _ who was then 20 _ say, ‘I know who killed my dad,'” Sughrue said.
Sughrue said experts are divided over recovered memories and he’ll try to prevent Mudd Jr., who could not be located for comment, from testifying if Slutzker is granted a new trial.
Pamela Freyd, executive director of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, based in Philadelphia, said people’s memories are susceptible to suggestion and that so-called recovered memories should be supported by external corroboration.
“The younger a person is, the more likely it is the person’s memory would have faded,” she said.
Elizabeth Loftus, a University of California-Irvine professor of psychology and a memory specialist, said that in many scientific circles, so-called recovered memories have largely been debunked.
“It’s led to, tragically, lots of people being charged and convicted criminally or prosecuted civilly and it’s led to many, many bogus cases,” she said.
Deb Magness, who was the jury forewoman in the 1992 trial, said Tuesday that the issue of John Mudd Jr.’s memory wasn’t a significant factor in deliberations. Magness said the jury placed more emphasis on witness testimony.
Slutzker was charged with Mudd’s murder two weeks after the killing, but the charge was dropped due to a lack of evidence. He was convicted of a murder solicitation charge and served 11 months in prison after prosecutors said he offered a man $500 to kill Mudd. Slutzker testified at his January 1992 murder trial that he considered hiring someone to kill Mudd, but denied any involvement in the murder.
Sughrue said Slutzker was with friends on the night of the murder, but that Slutzker’s then-trial attorney _ who has since died _ never even interviewed them.
“At a minimum, you have to conduct your own interview. You just can’t believe what the police reports say,” Sughrue said Tuesday. “It was a dead-set solid alibi and there’s no way that he could have committed this crime.”
According to court records cited in Baxter’s recommendation, the friends told police shortly after the murder that Slutzker had passed out from drinking at their home and that he didn’t leave. When police told them in 1991 that Mudd’s son had placed Slutzker at the murder scene, they conceded that it was possible that he could have left without their knowing, but maintained he didn’t.
Baxter also recommended that the case be retried to resolve the issue of whether Mudd’s wife had waived her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination at Slutzker’s trial because she had previously testified at a coroner’s inquest that Slutzker wasn’t there when her husband was killed.