Smithson forges ahead in quest for new trial

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William F. Smithson

William F. Smithson, a gay man accused of murdering a coworker 10 years ago, filed another brief last week in his quest for a new trial.

In 2006, Smithson allegedly strangled coworker Jason K. Shephard after inviting the young man to his residence. Delaware County prosecutors claim Smithson strangled Shephard during the course of trying to rape him.

In 2008, a Delaware County jury convicted Smithson of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

But Smithson’s advocates say authorities failed to adequately investigate F. Bruce Covington, another man inside Smithson’s home when Shephard died. They insist Covington is the more likely culprit, due to his alleged history of violent and abusive sexual practices. They point out that Smithson had no such history.

According to Smithson, Covington injected him with drugs, and he passed out while Shephard was still alive. When he woke up, Shephard was dead.

Covington was convicted of drug-related offenses stemming from the incident. But prosecutors say he didn’t kill Shephard.

Due to a series of legal maneuvers, Covington avoided testifying in front of a jury. But statements Covington gave to police were read to jurors by a state trooper.

Smithson’s July 11 brief emphasizes that Covington should have been required to testify in the case.

Because Covington was allowed to avoid testifying, Smithson was denied his constitutional right to confront an accuser, Smithson’s brief states.

“[Smithson] was prevented from examining Covington at trial about his role concerning the victim being murdered,” Smithson wrote in the brief. “Covington was allowed to take the Fifth Amendment and not testify, even though he was not charged in the murder of the victim.”

Smithson goes on to say he was denied the right to confront several other people involved in the case, and that his constitutional rights were “trampled upon.”

Rob Nardello, a close friend of Smithson, expressed hope that a new trial will be granted.

“Why would authorities protect Bruce Covington, knowing that he brought the drugs that were used that night and knowing he lied in his first statement, to distance himself from the fact that he was in the house when the murder took place?” Nardello posed. “If nothing else, Covington should have been a key witness. Instead, they chose to remove him as a potential suspect.”

Edward R. Frizell, another close friend, echoed Nardello’s sentiments.

“The Sixth and 14th Amendments grant Bill the right to confront his accusers,” Frizell told PGN. “Several of Covington’s statements were accusatory in nature. For example, he said that Bill had a sexual fantasy about raping a straight guy — indicating a motive. He also removed himself from the scene of the crime, leaving Bill alone with the victim — indicating an opportunity. These statements were read to jurors by a state trooper. But Bill was not allowed to confront the accuser. In addition, having a state trooper read the statements gave them credence in the mind of the jurors. Either Covington’s statements should have been withheld from the jury, or Bill should have had the right to confront him. You can’t have it both ways. Clearly, prosecutors wanted to keep their cake and eat it too. But that’s not justice.”

William R. Toal 3d, a Delaware County prosecutor handling the case, had no comment for this story. 

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Tim Cwiek has been writing for PGN since the 1970s. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from West Chester State University. In 2013, he received a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his reporting on the Nizah Morris case. Cwiek was the first reporter for an LGBT media outlet to win an award from that national organization. He's also received awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Newspaper Association, and the Keystone Press.