JOHNSTOWN, CAMBRIA COUNTY - 80 year old Anna Knaze was a sweet woman by all accounts. Ernie Simmons, on the other hand, had a long rap sheet with a history of violent crimes against the elderly. When Knaze died of a beating in her Johnstown home in 1992, police thought Simmons deserved a look. He was recently paroled to Johnstown.
"I felt they had tunnel vision on Ernie Simmons because he was an easy suspect. He had a criminal past and it was easier for them to get a conviction out of somebody like that," former Innocence Institute reporter Jamie Keaney said.
Keaney was part of the program through Point Park University. It's mission, in a nutshell, is to keep the courts honest. Honesty, Keaney said he found, was not the policy when he looked at the case built against Simmons.
"I remember very clearly reading through court transcripts and writing down 2 to 3 pages of bullet points where people were contradicting each other and where lies were told or things were hidden," Keaney said.
10 years after Simmons' trial, Keaney and a classmate visited the state's key witness, Margaret Cobaugh. She was an elderly neighbor of Knaze's who claimed Simmons raped her after the killing and told her quote "If you open your (expletive) mouth, you'll get the same thing Anna Knaze got."
"When we knocked on the door, this little old lady with white hair and big glasses came to the door in her nightgown. We told her who we were and what we were there to talk about," Keaney said.
Keaney said Cobaugh let them into her home. He never imagined she'd say what she said.
"She finally kind of looked up at us out of the top of her glasses and said real quietly he needed a witness and he didn't have one and he came to my house so many times that I finally said ok I saw his face," Keaney said.
The 'he' Keaney is talking about is former Johnstown Detective Richard Rok. A federal judge determined in 2005 that Rok and prosecuting attorney Pat Kiniry suppressed evidence from the jury that would have helped Simmons' defense. There were secretly recorded conversations with Simmons in which he denied the murder 19 times. There was DNA that didn't match him. Criminals received reduced sentences to be witnesses and Cobaugh could not pick Simmons out of a line-up. Director of the Innocence Institute, Bill Moushey, called the Simmons case one of the largest cover-ups he's ever seen.
"I know Detective Rok, who grew up in Johnstown probably wanted to catch whoever did it, but if you do not build a case lawfully you are no different than a law breaker," Moushey said.
Cobaugh's admission that she lied because she felt coerced was instrumental in not taking Simmons case back to trial. Plus, she's now deceased.
"Even if the judge had decided we could let Margaret Cobaugh's testimony in, her credibilty is weakened by the fact that she had recanted the statements she made in court to the attorneys with the Innocence Institute," Kiniry said after the plea agreement was made late last year.
But Keaney was not an attorney, just a college student, who said lies and manufactured evidence sent Simmons to death row.
"If they had a clear-cut case they would have put it out there and they didn't. They hid a lot of stuff," he said.