Local Reaction to Briggs' Sentence Change

TOWANDA, Pa. (18 NEWS) - Convicted cop killer Dustin Briggs was just taken off death row. Now he wants a new trial.

"This death penalty decision was given by 12 jurors representing the community and it's a shame that their decision can't be upheld," Bradford County District Attorney Daniel Barrett said.

Barrett didn't preside over the case, but he knows a lot about it. He said he's received many calls from community members who are upset by the court's decision.

"Many people are disappointed that the case is opened up after such a long time," he said. "Others are simply disappointed because the state has the death penalty but doesn't have a record of moving very quickly on it."

In March of 2004 Dustin Briggs shot and killed two Bradford County Sheriff's Deputies while they were trying to serve warrants at Briggs' home. Briggs was convicted on two counts of first degree murder and sentenced to death in 2006.

However, a judge recently reduced Briggs' sentence to life in prison without parole after he ruled the jury was given improper instructions about weighing evidence for the death penalty.

"The problem with the verdict slip was that it only asked the question of the death penalty or not," Barrett said. "State law requires that there has to be a decision of the death penalty for each of the murders."

A judge now has to rule on every other challenge listed Briggs' post-conviction petition, including his asking for a new trial.
"Eventually the court would get to decide whether there's a new trial or not when all of these proceedings have been resolved and the case moves onto the next phase," Barrett said. "Whether there is to be an appeal from that decision or whether there's going to be further proceedings on the case."

Former probation officer Tom Schuster not only worked with slain deputies Christopher Burgert and Michael VanKuren, he also considered them friends. He said he thinks the jury would have come to the same conclusion even if there were two lines about the death penalty included on the verdict slip.

"I'd say they chose the death penalty, they heard their instructions, they heard the testimony, they heard the statements by the defense and the prosecutor and the jury chose the death penalty," Schuster said. "So I would hope that the appellate court would take that into consideration."

Schuster also said he's become familiar with two separate cases in which DNA evidence ended up exonerating the convicted.

"Taking our time on the death penalty, it can be frustrating especially for the victims families I certainly recognize that, but making sure that we have dotted all the I's and cross all the T's I think is very, very important," Schuster said. "We certainly wouldn't want to put someone to death that's after the fact turned out that they didn't commit the crime."

Barrett said Pennsylvania has had the death penalty for about 35 years but an execution hasn't actually taken place in about two decades. He also said it will likely be years before all of Briggs' appeal proceedings are completed.

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