JOHNSTOWN, CAMBRIA COUNTY - Pete Knaze's mother Anna was murdered and robbed in her Johnstown home in May of 1992. Neighbors saw and heard her letting in a man who said his car broke down.
"There's a woman thats 80 years old. No broom, no gun, no knife in her hand and with his bare hands he strangles her and breaks her up. That's brutal buddy. I just hope he gets it the same way some day," Pete Knaze said.
He's talking about Ernie Simmons. Simmons was 36 when he was convicted in 1993 of the fatal choking and beating. He was sentenced to death. But now he gets another chance.
"The reason he's going to go on the street is because of the way they prosecuted him," Bill Moushey of the Innocence Institute of Point Park University said. "Whose fault is that?"
Simmons wrote a letter to the Innocence Institute proclaiming his innocence and claiming he didn't receive a fair trial. Student reporters found glaring errors made in the case. A federal judge threw out the conviction.
"It was one of the largest cover-ups of evidence I've ever seen," Moushey said.
Four violations by the prosecution were uncovered, all four involving evidence that, by law, they were required to disclose to Simmons attorneys but didn't. Like, the state's key witness was unable to pick Simmons out of a line up of pictures. And prosecutors made a deal with that witness to drop a pending gun charge against her for her cooperation. There was DNA tested that did not match Simmons. Finally police had Simmons' girlfriend audio record conversations with him. He claimed on those tapes 19 times he didn't do it. The prosecutor said he didn't mean to hide that evidence.
"It was totally an accident. The stuff wasnt even at the police station as I recall, it was somewhere else. I really don't even want to get into the details. I'm not here to throw anybody under the bus," Kiniry said.
"You tape things all the time. If you made 19 tapes of me a year later, would you remember that," Moushey said.
Faced with two options, a trial or a plea agreement then-District Attorney Pat Kiniry visited Pete Knaze at his home December 30th.
"He (Kiniry) said we're gonna go for the plea. I said when? He said tomorrow. I said what, do i have a choice? He shook his head," Knaze said.
So on Kiniry's last day as district attorney, and still believing Simmons was their man, he offered him a plea that entailed a sentence of time served plus 10 years of probation. Plus Simmons didn't have to admit guilt. He accepted. No trial.
"I had to make that decision based upon my experience. I knew the case inside and out. I felt there was a great chance perhaps there would be a conviction if it was presented to a jury, but I have to worry about when that goes on appeal," Kiniry said.
"If they honestly believe this guy did this, they should never have cut him a deal," Moushey said. "I'm not in favor of putting people who torture and brutally murder break almost every bone in this woman's body. Who in their right mind would do that?"
Moushey doesn't know if Simmons is guilty or innocent and that's not his concern. He only cares that the now-52 year old's rights were violated nearly 2 decades ago.
"We don't go after exonerations we go after finding the truth," he said.
Pete Knaze wonders what if? What if another jury could hear that his mother was strangled? Every rib was broken and her spine was severed. He hopes he's not letting her down, but he can't help but feel like the message scribbled on the back of that picture in his wallet now holds a different meaning.
"It says 'remember your mother'. That's a hell of a way to remember her. A hell of a way to remember her," Knaze said. "Why did he have to take her life? That's what hurts."