Attorney: Victim provoked murderer — (The Tribune-Review)

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The Tribune-Review

By Rich Cholodofsky

Tuesday, June 7, 2005

The attorney for a South Greensburg man told a Westmoreland County jury on Monday that 20-year-old Candace Cohen caused her own death by provoking her former boyfriend into a fatal stabbing last year.

Defense lawyer Jerome Tierney, in his opening statement to jurors in the first day of testimony in the first-degree murder trial of Jeffrey C. West Jr., 28, did not dispute that his client fatally stabbed Cohen. Instead, Tierney attempted to mitigate West’s actions.

“This was a wheel of passion that spun and, unfortunately, when it ended, Candace Cohen was dead. She started the wheel to roll,” Tierney said.

Cohen, the young mother of a 5-year-old girl, was stabbed to death in the early morning hours of Feb. 24, 2004, outside Mr. Toad’s bar in downtown Greensburg. Prosecutors contend West was upset after being rebuffed in his attempts to reconcile with Cohen, whom he had dated for about a year and lived with for a period of time.

Tierney also suggested that West, a recovering heroin addict, was unable to understand his actions because earlier in the day he received a massive dose of methadone and later voluntarily had consumed a bottle of medication prescribed for depression.

But the defense yesterday unveiled its new theory of the case, one that put much of the blame for the fatal confrontation on Cohen.

“He thought he was coming to her rescue, but out in the alley the wheel changed. Now she’s saying that he’s a piece of …. That’s when Jeff looses it,” Tierney said.

Tierney told jurors that West was guilty of nothing more than voluntary manslaughter, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. If convicted of first-degree murder, West faces a mandatory sentence of life behind bars.

Allen Powanda, Westmoreland County first assistant district attorney, told jurors that West gave a detailed confession to police, in which he described a series of events that suggest he planned to kill his former girlfriend.

But Tierney said that Cohen instigated those events through several calls she made to West earlier in the evening. At the time those calls were made, Cohen was out on the town with her new boyfriend, Chad Baker, and another man.

The trio had gone to Mr. Toad’s shortly before 11 p.m. Baker said it was West who had repeatedly called Cohen on her cell phone during the evening.

Several witnesses who testified yesterday saw a man, later identified as West, attack Cohen in an alley outside the bar.

Tom Boscia, 29, of Irwin, told jurors that Baker had become upset with the calls from West that Cohen received earlier in the evening. He said he even attempted to speak with Cohen about the calls during a brief conversation in the ladies room at the bar.

It was then, Boscia testified, that he saw a man who introduced himself as West come into the bar, seek out Cohen and escort her into the alley. Boscia paid his bar tab and went outside.

“I saw Jeff West was holding her, then uppercutting her really fast,” Boscia said.

Initially, Boscia and other witnesses said they didn’t know that Cohen had been stabbed.

Another witness, Kimberly Nace, testified she overheard part of the conversation between West and Cohen.

“I was walking by and heard the female say, ‘I can’t do a relationship right now,'” Nace said.

Boscia and Baker, who told jurors he rounded the alley corner and saw West running away, chased after Cohen’s assailant. Baker caught up with West several blocks away on Main Street and tackled him from behind, then the two men began to fight.

During that fight, Baker was stabbed several times. West also is facing aggravated assault and attempted homicide charges for that stabbing.

Under questioning from Tierney, Baker said he regretted taking Cohen out to the Greensburg bar that night and felt partly responsible for her death.

“Yeah, I felt guilty. There’s a little girl now without a mother, an awesome girl who’s dead, and family members who will be upset. Yeah, I felt guilty for saying let’s go there, for going outside (the bar) to get our coats. I’m upset we went anywhere that night,” Baker testified.

The trial, which is expected to last about seven days, will continue this morning before Westmoreland County Judge John Blahovec.

Rich Cholodofsky can be reached at rcholodofsky@tribweb.com or (724) 830-6293.

 

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Man convicted of killing ex-girlfriend faces sentencing — (TribLIVE)

Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2005

“Some people say you’ve got to forgive, but I just can’t.”

Those are the words of Diane Demorest, a mother whose daughter died 1 12 years ago after being stabbed repeatedly in a Greensburg alley by her ex-boyfriend. Demorest said she will struggle to maintain her composure as she tells a judge today why she feels convicted killer Jeffrey C. West Jr. should be sent to prison for as long as possible.

West, 27, of Southwest Greensburg, was convicted of third-degree murder and aggravated assault last June for the death of Candace S. Cohen, of Hempfield Township, and for the nonfatal stabbing of Chad Baker, of Irwin. West is scheduled to appear before Westmoreland County Judge John E. Blahovec at 9 a.m. for sentencing.

That West was not convicted of first-degree murder, a verdict that would have guaranteed a life sentence, outraged the family of the victims, especially Demorest, who tried to lunge at West just moments after the verdict was read, but was restrained by sheriff’s deputies and family members.

Defense attorney Jerome L. Tierney said the case against West doesn’t support such a serious penalty.

“This is not a case where Jeffrey was lying in wait to stab Candace or to kill her or to hurt anyone, for that matter,” Tierney said. “That jury said, unequivocally, this is not first-degree murder.”

Because of the apparent tension during trial, Westmoreland County Sheriff Chris Scherer said the number of deputies in Blahovec’s courtroom will be increased for today’s hearing.

“In a case like that, you never know what’s going to happen,” Scherer said.

Tierney said jail time has changed West for the better. Being in a cell curtailed possible relapses into drug use and the stress of court had West reflecting often on where his life went wrong, the attorney said.

“Based upon his incarceration and mentally and spiritually having to go through that trial, the addiction is gone,” Tierney said. “At some point in time when he goes back into society, he won’t have that problem. … He knows more about himself now than he probably ever did.”

To a grieving Demorest, West’s personal advancements mean nothing. She said she lost her brother-in-law, Ron, to a homicide in Homewood about a decade ago and knows the emotional reality of today’s hearing. She hopes for a stiff sentence, but said she realizes even that may leave her unsatisfied.

“The most he can get. That’s all we can ask for now. … It doesn’t matter what he gets,” she said. “It won’t bring her back.”

Cohen, 20, left behind a daughter, Lexis, now 7. “The other day she was crying. She said, ‘I just want my mom back,'” Demorest said. “That just kills you. It’s tough.”

Cohen died in a Pittsburgh hospital after West left her lying on Herb Friedlander Way with eight stab wounds, according to investigation reports. Two of the wounds were in her back and the murder weapon, a knife with an 8-inch blade, pierced her heart. The alley is lit by street lamps. It runs past a side entrance to Mr. Toad’s, a bar located on East Otterman Street.

West told police that he went to the bar, carrying the knife for protection, shortly before 1 a.m. when Cohen called him, asking that they meet to discuss their failed relationship. In his confession, he also told the police that he wanted Cohen to “feel the heartbreak I felt.” Family members said West moved out of Cohen’s mobile home about two weeks before the stabbing.

West fled from the alley after stabbing Cohen. Several witnesses, including Baker, gave chase. When Baker caught up to West, a scuffle ensued. Baker, who had been stabbed four times, was later found on South Main Street.

When authorities found West outside of 519 Westminster Ave., several blocks from the Greensburg police station, he was covered in blood and initially uncooperative, investigators said.

West told a psychiatrist that he had consumed a two-week supply of antidepressant pills and a “huge” dose of methadone before he went to meet Cohen. Methadone is a drug generally used to wean people away from heroin.

On the witness stand, West said he was trying to defend himself and that he never intended to kill Cohen.

“I just broke,” he told jurors. “I just snapped.”

First Assistant District Attorney Allen Powanda said the maximum sentence West faces is 30 to 60 years. He said his goal is to ensure that West will serve the bulk of that time for the brutal attack.

“I think the sentence should be at least 25 to 50,” he said.