Appeals court dismisses homicide conspiracy conviction in stabbing death of Washington County woman |

Appeals court dismisses homicide conspiracy conviction in stabbing death of Washington County woman

Paul Peirce
Diane McClelland following 2013 trial.

A state appellate court Monday dismissed the homicide conspiracy conviction of a Washington County woman who along with her husband and stepson were found guilty in the brutal slaying of their 92-year-old neighbor in 2011 in order to loot the victim’s savings.

The three-judge Superior Court panel also ordered Diane McClelland, 56, be returned to Washington Common Pleas Court to be resentenced on the lesser criminal charges a jury found her guilty of in 2013 for the July 18, 2011, stabbing death of Evelyn Stepko of California.

McClelland is serving a 24 1⁄2 to 49 year prison sentence in the fatal stabbing of her neighbor, Stepko. The appellate court let stand convictions against McClelland for dealing in proceeds of unlawful activity, receiving stolen property, and hindering apprehension .

McClelland’s husband, David A. McClelland, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder for stabbing Stepko to death after she surprised him in the basement after he entered her home looking for cash. He was linked to the slaying by DNA.

Diane McClelland’s stepson, David McClelland, 38,a former part-time officer in Monongahela and Washington Township in Fayette County, is serving a life sentence at SCI-Greene after his 2013 conviction by a Washington County jury for second-degree murder for his role in Stepko’s death and theft conspiracy.

The elder McClelland died in 2014 at SCI-Greene, a maximum security prison, of natural causes at age 60.

Prosecutors said the trio stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from the widow over several years, spending it on real estate, home improvements, firearms, vehicles, tools and gambling at The Meadows Casino in North Strabane Township.

Police testified at McClelland’s trial the family stole cash that Stepko kept hidden throughout her home.

Stepko died of two stab wounds in the neck and of blunt-force trauma to the chest.

Diane McClelland argued in her appeal that “she believed the money her husband had possessed he had derived from his earnings from a private lottery as well as a Massachusetts lottery, and her husband’s disability check.”

Although the appellate court panel agreed that evidence showed “a conspiracy to burgle the victims’s home, and to receive and spend illicit gains derived,” the judges said the homicide conspiracy is considered by law a “wholly distinct crime of conspiracy.”

“Here, the trial court does not even state that the evidence was sufficient to establish that (McClelland) intended to promote or facilitate the commission of homicide. Instead, the court specifically identified the burglary, theft, dealing in proceeds of unlawful activities as the target offenses of the conspiracy,” the judges said.

“Our independent review of the record fails to uncover any evidence of the Appellant’s intent to participate in or facilitate a homicide,” the judges wrote.

District Attorney Eugene Vittone said he was not completely surprised by the appellate court opinion.

“There has been a lot of recent appellate scrutiny of the limits of what goes into a conspiracy conviction. They agreed that she was in on the burglaries, but as for the murder, they didn’t think she should be answerable for that,” Vittone said.

Vittone said that McClelland cannot be retried on the homicide conspiracy. However, he noted his office has 30 days to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.

“We’re going to take a close look at that,” Vittone said.

Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-850-2860, [email protected] or via Twitter @ppeirce_trib.