Homicide Conspiracy Conviction Overturned for California Woman

The conviction of a California woman for conspiracy to commit homicide was reversed by the state Superior Court. The court decreed that the woman should receive a new sentence on other charges that came out of a series of burglaries that led to the death of her elderly neighbor.

Diane McClelland, age 58, appealed her sentence to a three-judge panel. The panel issued an 18-page opinion on Monday that declared that there had not been enough evidence to prove that McClelland participated in a conspiracy to kill Evelyn Stepko. Stepko was 92 years old, and a widow, and had lived near McClelland and her family in the Granville neighborhood of Mon Valley Borough.

The court's opinion was authored by Judge John Bender. It stated that the prosecutors had not provided evidence to prove that McClelland had a specific intent to kill Mrs. Stepko. The opinion stated that the theory the jury used to convict McClelland was not "legally cognizable."

McClelland was appointed an attorney by the court, Stephen C. Paul, of Pittsburgh, to represent her during the appeal. In an email, Paul stated that the Superior Court's decision confirmed McClelland's statements from the beginning that she took no part in the victim's death.

Paul added, "The decision is a testament that, while the criminal justice system is not perfect, it is designed to ensure that convictions are just."

McClelland had appeared before Washington County Judge DiSalle, who sentenced her to 24 1/2 to 49 years. Currently, she is imprisoned at a minimum security facility in Crawford County, the State Correctional Institution – Cambridge Springs. The majority of her sentence, 20 to 40 years of it, comes out of the homicide conspiracy conviction.

The Superior Court also looked at her remaining convictions, vacating her sentences on those. Those convictions include receiving stolen property, providing false information the law enforcement, dealing in the proceeds of unlawful activity, and conspiracy offenses.

McClelland had asked that those convictions be reversed, but the appellate panel refused. They found that the government had "clearly established a conspiracy to burgle the victim's home, and to receive and spend the illicit gains derived therefrom."

The appellate court's opinion quoted a summary of Diane McClelland's trial. It said that there was no evidence to show that McClelland participated physically in the burglaries, but that she had conspired with her stepson and husband to carry them out.

Trial evidence demonstrated that McClelland had covered home renovations, bought a late model Lincoln Navigator, and purchase real estate with cash that she received after burglaries that had occurred at Stepko's house. These burglaries occurred between August 2009 and July 18, 2011, when Stepko was found stabbed to death at the home.

McClelland's husband, David A. McClelland, pled guilty to Stepko's murder in 2012. He later died of natural causes at SCI – Greene.

McClelland's stepson, David J. McClelland, was tried for Stepko's murder in 2013, and found guilty. He is now 33 and is serving a life sentence at the prison where his father had been. David J. McClelland is a former part-time police officer in Monongahela and Washington Township, Fayette County.

Police believed David A. McClelland entered into Stepko's house thinking that she was not at home, but that she surprised him while he was trying to steal more of her money.

Stepko was a frugal woman. She didn't even have her house connected to the public water system, she was so frugal. She had saved more than $1 million, much of which she kept in cash in her house.

According to the summary that was included in the court's opinion, there were large amounts of currency, much of it moldy and musty and dating to the 1980’s and ‘90’s, found in the McClelland's home.

If Washington County prosecutors wish to appeal the court's decision, they have 30 days to do so. District Attorney Gene Vittone has not stated what they plan to do as of this date.

As a criminal defense attorney, I really like this story. My colleagues and I work hard to defend our clients, and losing a case is always difficult. However, the justice system does allow for do-overs, and this case proves they are possible in the worst of scenarios. Here’s hoping Mrs. McClelland finds herself getting “time served” for her other convictions and back home.

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