Update, March 21, 2013: Experts hope reinvestigation, reward will clear Zachary Witman in brother's 1998 murder


Editor's note: This story was originally published Dec. 19, 2010.


Ronald and Amelia "Sue" Witman still live in the middle-class, suburban New Freedom home where their 13-year-old son, Gregory, was murdered on Oct. 2, 1998.

Since then, their world has shrunk. They've lost friends who could not understand their unwavering belief that their older son, Zachary, did not kill his brother. They've been told by strangers to "just get over it" and get on with their lives.

But they can't.


Zach Witman, left, loved his brother Greg, right, too much to have killed him, their parents said. At Zach's trial, the jury didn't hear testimony about the boys' relationship. Prosecutors said even without a motive, the physical evidence proved what happened. (DAILY RECORD / SUNDAY NEWS -- FILE)
They say Zach could not have stabbed and slashed Greg more than 100 times -- 65 times to the neck -- and nearly decapitated him with a flimsy penknife.

They say he could not have killed Greg and buried the murder weapon in 7 1/2 minutes, and, in the middle of that, still sounded normal when he answered a phone call from one of Greg's friends.

They say Zach had no reason to kill Greg. The boys loved one another, and Zach had never been in trouble.

Their son's trial attorney did not call expert witnesses, allowed in incriminating evidence, and failed to convince the jury Zach wouldn't have killed his brother, and physically couldn't have done it.

David McGlaughlin said he believes Zach is innocent and understands the Witmans feel he did not do enough for him. But he said he gave Zach a good, honest effort.

"I lived with that evidence for two years," he said.
"I feel terrible for those people."

Now, the Witmans' hope lies with the Pennsylvania Superior Court, and the slim possibility Zach, 27, will get a new trial.

The Witmans, who recently spoke at length about their son's case for the first time since the trial, said they would go so far as having Greg's body exhumed for more forensic testing to prove Zach's innocence.

"I would say the general population believes one of two things: either that we just don't want to believe it, OK, because we don't want to lose our other son -- we don't want to open our eyes to the reality," Ron Witman said.

". . . Or the other is that we're just whacko, which has been said on more than one occasion, especially about me."

But the Witmans say they know more of the evidence than anyone does, including the jury.

One of the prosecutors who convicted Zach said he understands the Witmans' need to come up with theories to defend their son.

"As a matter of fact, it's probably very necessary for them ...," Chief Deputy Prosecutor Timothy Barker said.

"They have one child who is deceased and another child who is doing life in prison without parole for his murder. They can manufacture reasonable doubt any way that they need to to go on with each day."

After reviewing court documents and a photograph of the murder weapon, and, in one case, handling a similar knife, some forensic and legal experts said they agree the Witmans are raising questions that should be answered.

Some said the plastic-handled knife with a 1  3/4-inch blade could have been the murder weapon but likely was too small and flimsy to inflict more than 100 wounds without breaking.

"That's an incredible beating this knife was able to withstand," said Evan Nappen, a New Jersey attorney who specializes in knife and gun cases.

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project has another question about the knife, and might look at the case.

Marissa Bluestine, legal director for the group, said Greg's attacker should have been cut on the hands because the bloody knife handle would have slipped during the stabbing. And, despite the knit soccer gloves, the attacker should have been drenched in blood from the fingernails to the clothing.

Investigators found one shallow cut on Zach's left ring finger. His sweatshirt was bloody, but not bloodsoaked.

The Witmans said a 911 dispatcher told Zach to move his brother's body, and that's how blood got on the front of his sweatshirt and cuffs. His mother said, when Zach didn't want to touch something, he'd pull his shirt cuffs over his palms to avoid touching it.

Barker said no one -- including himself -- wanted to believe Zach killed his younger brother.

"But everything we did was based on following the physical evidence," he said. "Is there any question he got a fair trial? There can be no question. It was all about the physical evidence and the facts that flowed from it."

McGlaughlin said he "started off thinking the kid was guilty."

"I changed my mind after looking at the evidence. I let the evidence take me to the conclusion the kid couldn't have done it. The physical evidence does not point to Zach."





Should brotherly love count?

Family and friends have said Zach and Greg had no hint of animosity between them.

Last month, Zach wrote from jail that he loved Greg and would never hurt him.

But the defense could not convince the judge to admit "relationship" testimony. Instead, the jury heard from character witnesses who were limited by law to saying Zach had an "excellent" reputation "in the community."

Ron Witman said he wanted to tell the jury that, weeks before Greg's death, Zach planned and built a soccer net for Greg.

The parents said police and prosecutors never considered how close the brothers were or tried to figure out why someone would want to kill Greg.

"Motive is how you find the murderer because that usually points you in the direction of what happened," Ron Witman said.

Police and prosecutors, however, said that's not the case.

They focus on the physical evidence, said Southern Regional Police Detective Roger Goodfellow, the lead investigator in the murder. Physical evidence doesn't lie.

By law, the prosecution does not have to offer a motive for a crime. Judges tell jurors they can consider a lack of motive with other evidence.

At the beginning of Zach's trial, prosecutors conceded they were not going to prove or even offer a motive for the murder.





Family: Timeline is flawed

Greg's friend, Erynn Jeffery, called the Witmans' home at 3:09 p.m. the day Greg was killed. Someone picked up a downstairs phone but immediately hung up.

Greg walked through the door about 3:10 p.m., and both the prosecution and defense believe he was attacked in the foyer.

So, Ron Witman asked, how could Zach, who was home from school ill, have sounded normal when he answered a second call around 3:15 p.m.?

"He's either started murdering Greg, in the process of murdering Greg or done murdering Greg, but meanwhile, he's not out of breath, he sounds normal, nothing out of the ordinary," Ron Witman said.

During the brief phone conversation, Zach told Erynn that Greg wasn't home yet.

Could Zach have stabbed and slashed his brother more than 100 times after hanging up with Erynn? He called 911 at 3:17:29 p.m. to report finding his brother's body.

And the Witmans question why Zach -- if he killed Greg -- would have called York County 911 so soon to report finding his brother's body. He controlled the crime scene and could have changed his bloody clothes.


Chief Deputy Prosecutor Timothy Barker, shown here after the 2003 Witman trial verdict, recently said Zach got a fair trial, but he said he understands the Witmans' efforts to clear their son. 'They can manufacture reasonable doubt any way that they need to to go on with each day.' (DAILY RECORD / SUNDAY NEWS -- FILE)
"It's getting ridiculous," Ron Witman said.

The Witmans said investigators never looked for another suspect. Police arrested Zach, then 15, and charged him with homicide eight days after the killing.

The father said he believes the attacker knew how to use a knife and quickly silenced Greg by slashing his throat. Zach, the Witmans said, was upstairs when Greg was killed.

Former police Officer George Matheis, who has provided knife training to the military, said the murder could have been committed in the 7 1/2-minute window. But he, too, questions whether Zach could have done it and sounded like himself on the phone. If he expended that much emotional and physical energy in that short time span, Matheis said, "I'm going to be pretty exhausted. . . . I'm going to be trembling. I'm going to be shaking."

That kind of testimony wasn't part of the trial.

Matheis said he's confident Zach could not have killed Greg in less than three minutes after Erynn's second phone call.

Tod W. Burke, professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia, also questions why Zach called 911 so soon after the killing if he had done it.

Prosecutors, however, said it had to be enough time for somebody to have committed the murder, and the only evidence the Witmans' attorney offered was the phone call.

"So it was plenty of time for someone else to have gotten in the house, lie in wait, ambush Gregory, leave, dispose of the evidence in the back yard, and then get safely away with nobody seeing this individual throughout the entire neighborhood?" Barker asked.

"But it's not sufficient time for the person who was home in the house already to have committed the homicide?"

Could 'junk' knife have done this?

At trial and on appeal, none of Zach's attorneys has argued that the small, plastic-handled knife could not be the murder weapon.


Evidence shown to the jury during Zach Witman's trial. Police said the top knife was used to kill Greg; the Witmans said they'd never seen it before. Police confiscated the bottom knife from Zach's room during the investigation. (DAILY RECORD / SUNDAY NEWS -- FILE)
Matheis examined a similar knife provided by the Witmans and called it "junk."

"This is absolutely beyond a shadow of a doubt the worst possible tool to try to do what was done," Matheis said.

After a photograph of the knife was published in the newspaper, Ron Witman said, he met a military veteran who told him he had believed Zach was guilty until he saw the picture.

That knife couldn't have inflicted those injuries, the man said.

Bothered that the prosecution characterized the knife as unique, Ron Witman has bought a collection of near-identical knives on eBay in an assortment of colors with a variety of business logos. The knives all feature the same 1  3/4-inch blade -- the only metal in the knife -- and the plastic lever that slides the blade in and out.

Nappen said he can't say it's impossible, but he, too, questions whether the knife would have held up to the twisting and turning during the attack.

Detective Goodfellow handled one of Ron Witman's knives during a recent interview.

"I can do a lot of damage with this in a very short time," he said. "You can kill somebody with a pencil."

Click here to read more about the knife.

 
A push for more DNA tests

At Greg's autopsy, the day after he was killed, a pathologist clipped his fingernails, bagged them and turned them over to police.

Southern Regional Police still has those clippings. More than 20 DNA tests were performed on evidence, but the clippings were not tested.

The prosecution didn't need the clippings to be examined for DNA, Barker said. The vast amount of Greg's blood on them would make it hard to find other DNA.

Zach's appeal attorneys now argue his trial attorney was ineffective for not having DNA tests done on the clippings.

At trial, his defense attorney argued that the prosecution should have had the testing done.

The Witmans want that testing, confident it will establish that Zach is not the killer.

Click here to read more about untested DNA evidence.

 
Parents wonder, 'What if?'


Photographs of brothers Greg and Zach Witman still sit on the kitchen table at the family's New Freedom home. (DAILY RECORD / SUNDAY NEWS -- KATE PENN)
The Witmans' new arguments might not be enough to get Zach a new trial, University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said.

"They need something on the order of a smoking gun, and they don't have it yet," he said.

That could be discovery of evidence not known at the time of trial, a witness who recants his or her testimony or someone stepping forward and saying, "No, I'm the guy," said Bluestine, of the Innocence Project.

If Zach wants her group to look at the case, Bluestine said, it would be interested. She said she sees grounds for concern based on the number of wounds Greg received in 7 1/2 minutes, the lack of wounds to Zach, and that the older brother wasn't drenched in blood.

Meanwhile, the Witmans have lost faith in the criminal justice system.

"If we thought for a minute that Zach was responsible for this crime, we would have gone to the district attorney and we would have said: How do we get help for our son?" Ron Witman said.

To this day, people approach them and talk about the murder.

"There are people that have actually come up to (Sue) and said: 'Get over it, and get on with your life.' There are people that have come up to her and said: 'You know your son killed your other son, and you just don't want to admit it. So just admit it, and go about your life,'" Ron Witman said.

"And then there are other people that start crying. I mean they literally walk up to us and, before we open our mouths, start crying. But those people are in a lot of cases people who knew us as compared to only having the media and the trial to work from."

Sue Witman said she doesn't like how some people treat her, but she minds her manners. She tells strangers they don't know her children or what happened.

She will talk to anyone who will listen about Zach's case, and "it's amazing how many people she turns," Ron Witman said.

He, on the other hand, doesn't have the patience for it. He can't spend his life trying to convince one person at a time that his son is innocent. He cares only about the legal proceedings and getting Zach out of jail.

Sometimes, the father said, he has to walk away when people share their opinions.

"The reality is . . . the more aggressive I am in any way, shape or form, the more it's going to reinforce in anyone's mind that Zach has aggression," Ron Witman said. "So if I in any way attack even verbally . . . it's all going to be perceived as substantiating what they already believe."

The parents often wonder "what if." What if they had never moved to Pennsylvania? What if Ron Witman had been home on Oct. 2, 1998, instead of on a business trip?

What if Zach had admitted to the crime under the juvenile system instead of going to trial?

The parents weighed the options for their older son when he was charged. Ron Witman said he considered telling Zach, then 15, to admit to the murder if it meant he would be prosecuted as a minor and subject to far fewer years in custody.

But the father said his son looked him in the eye and replied: "Dad, how can I possibly admit to something I didn't do? And I would never hurt Greg."


* * *

Additional concerns

Other issues about the case the Witman family has raised:

Luminol: Police used luminol, a chemical that reacts with blood and other agents, to discover footprints that led from the house to the buried knife and gloves outside.

Chief Deputy Prosecutor Timothy Barker said what's important isn't the footprints themselves but that police found the knife and gloves when they followed the trail.

The family, however, says the trail wasn't continuous, and it could have reacted with a solution Sue Witman uses to clean the hot tub.

The family saved the carpet that they had replaced in case it would be needed for further testing.

Police experience: The Witmans say investigators with more experience, especially in homicides, should have been put on the case.

"In a horrendous, horrific murder scene?" Ron Witman said. "This was clearly the police flexing their muscles to say, 'We know what we're doing,' when, in fact, they don't."

At the time of Greg's death, Detective Roger Goodfellow, the lead investigator, said he had been a municipal police officer for 21 years. The size of a department doesn't determine the quality of the people working there, Goodfellow said.

Barker described state trooper Doug Woodcock, who helped with the case, as an "excellent investigator."

The white van: The Witmans still wonder about the white van a witness told police was seen in the area of the neighborhood around the time of the murder. At trial, Greg's soccer coach testified he drove his white van to the neighborhood after hearing about Greg's murder.

But the Witmans contend the witness' description of the van and the driver was not similar to the coach and his van.

"That was put out there," Barker said. "It was considered by the jury. They were allowed to factor that in."



* * *

Family at a standstill


Greg Witman is buried in Druid Ridge Cemetary in Pikesville, Md., next to his grandmother, Flora Fleishman. His parents have not engraved his name on the headstone because they have considered moving him to another plot. (DAILY RECORD / SUNDAY NEWS -- KATE PENN)

Ron and Sue Witman travel about 280 miles roundtrip to the state prison in Huntingdon County to see Zach every week.

He doesn't talk about his case, his mother said. It hurts too much.

"He misses Greg desperately," Sue Witman said.

Zach declined to be interviewed for this story through his counselor, prison spokeswoman Lisa Hollibaugh said.

Zach's a bright kid, his mother said. He's a teacher's assistant, helping fellow prisoners with their GEDs or legal documentation.

Dianne Zengel, a family friend from Maryland Line, Md., said Zach is an intelligent person who likes to do intellectual things. He has taught himself French, and he's now working on Spanish, she said.

He's also involved in the history and culture of religions, especially Judaism, Sue Witman said. The Witmans are Jewish, and Zach observes the religious holidays.

"He's very, very well respected in prison I can tell you," she said. "He helps people. He sort of stays by himself, like he always has."

* * *

The Witmans said they would love to move away from their New Freedom home, but they don't want to move to be closer to Zach and then have to move again if he gets out of prison.

"We stay here because it's momentum," Ron Witman said.

Sue Witman said she would like to live in a tiny house with
2 or 3 acres in a secluded area.

But the parents said they're going to do whatever Zach wants if he gets out of prison. If he wants to attend the University of Pennsylvania, then they'll live somewhere near him.

"We're going to try not to smother him, but I think we're going to want to be near him after what's happened to us," Ron Witman said.

Click here to read more about family and friends' support for the Witmans.

* * *

Zachary Witman: Case timeline


15 years old in 1998

Oct. 2, 1998: Greg Witman, 13, is murdered in New Freedom.

Oct. 10, 1998: Zach Witman, 15, is charged with his brother's murder. Numerous pre-trial hearings and appeals delay the trial.

May 21, 2003: Witman, 20, is convicted of first-degree murder.


20 years old in 2003

July 8, 2003: Judge John C. Uhler sentences Witman to the mandatory term of life in prison without parole.

Nov. 3, 2003: Uhler rejects Witman's post-trial motion to set aside the verdict or grant a new trial.

Jan. 11, 2005: The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirms Witman's conviction and sentence.

May 12, 2005: Witman's request to appeal is denied by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Dec. 12, 2005: Witman's request to appeal is denied by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nov. 22, 2006: Witman files his post-conviction relief appeal in York County, arguing his trial counsel was ineffective.


26 years old in 2009

Dec. 21, 2007: Uhler, who presided over Witman's 2003 trial, grants Witman's appeal and orders a new trial on the grounds of ineffective counsel.

June 2, 2008: The York County District Attorney's Office appeals Uhler's ruling to the state Superior Court.

March 16, 2009: The Pennsylvania Superior Court reverses Uhler's decision to grant a new trial and remands the case back to York County for Uhler to rule in Witman's remaining post-conviction arguments.

April 26, 2010: Uhler rejects the remaining appeal issues.

May 13, 2010: Witman's attorneys appeal Uhler's ruling to the state Superior Court.


Also of interest:

See these stories and photographs about crimes and courts in York County's past

Zach Witman's case among York County's most notorious criminal actions in past 50 years, with picture of young Zachary and Gregory Witman on a beach..

Here's a photograph of Zach Witman carrying his own defense exhibit to trial

Zachary Witman case one of top 10 York County news stories, 2000-2010.