A Hempfield man serving life in prison for strangling his wife more than six years ago wants a new trial, contending former lawyers did not adequately defend him when he was convicted in 2014 of first-degree murder.
David Stahl, 48, for the first time since his arrest for the February 2012 murder of Rebecca Stahl, a popular Derry Area School District teacher, testified he did not intend to kill his wife during a violent and fatal confrontation after he returned home following a day-long outing of drinking at several local bars.
Stahl did not testify during his trial. On Monday, he spoke from the witness stand and claimed his wife confronted him with a knife and they became physical as he attempted to disarm her.
“We started arguing again when the knife came out. We struggled at the bottom of the steps,” Stahl said, later adding that “I don’t remember putting my hands around her neck.”
Defense attorney Christy Foreman asked Stahl if he intended to kill his wife.
“No, but we had marital problems,” Stahl said.
During the trial, prosecutors contended Stahl used both hands to choke his wife to death, applying pressure for nearly a minute before she died.
Prosecutors alleged 37-year-old Rebecca Stahl was a victim of a physically abusive relationship with her husband of three years and that she was killed when she was recovering from a recent hysterectomy. The prosecution claimed that after the murder, David Stahl lied to his wife’s family about her whereabouts and hid the body in a shed behind his home for five days before he dumped it in a brush-covered field near Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity.
Before her body was discovered, Stahl burned his wife’s belongings and identification, the prosecution said.
While Stahl testified Monday regarding specifics of the murder, the hearing also revolved around the defense’s new theory that the trial strategy used by his former lawyers was insufficient.
“I think they could have done a better job,” Stahl testified.
Public Defenders Donna McClelland and Matthew Schimizzi testified they developed a trial defense that Stahl attempted to defend himself when his wife was killed. They chose not to pursue a defense that suggested Stahl was too drunk to form an intent to kill.
McClelland said while Stahl insisted he was drunk that night, the defense team was unable to determine just how many drinks he consumed during what could have been as long as a 12-hour period.
She testified she argued to jurors alcohol played a role in the murder but that no witnesses were available to testify to those specifics.
“There was never a way to document how much he had to drink,” McClelland said.
During a confession to police five days after the murder, Peck said Stahl admitted to police he was not heavily intoxicated at the time of the killing.
Hathaway said she will review the appeal before ruling.
Rich Cholodofsky is a
Tribune-Review staff writer.
You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293 or [email protected]