Dec. 26-Lackawanna County prosecutors acknowledge the testimony of a key witness against convicted child killer Joseph Aulisio was flawed, but contend he would still have been convicted based on other evidence that overwhelmingly proved his guilt.
Aulisio, now 56, was convicted in 1982 of the shotgun slayings of 8-year-old Cheryl Ziemba and her 4-year-old brother, Christopher, inside a partially constructed home on his parents' property in Old Forge on July 26, 1981.
Aulisio, who was 15 at the time of the crime, received a life sentence but was granted a new sentencing hearing based on a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that outlawed automatic life sentences for juvenile killers.
Lackawanna County Judge Vito Geroulo in December 2019 resentenced Aulisio to 60 years to life in prison. The sentence was later upheld on appeal.
In September, Aulisio turned to the federal court system. Representing himself, he filed a court action that challenges the legality of his state court conviction.
The petition argues, in part, that he is innocent and that the verdict was unduly influenced by allegedly false testimony of the Ziemba children's mother, Diane Ziemba, who said she witnessed Aulisio from her kitchen window leading the children into the back door of his parents' home.
In a recent reply to the petition, District Attorney Mark Powell acknowledged photographic evidence presented at the 1982 trial showed that Ziemba could not see the back door from her window. He contends that issue does not warrant a new trial, however, because the discrepancy was examined at the trial.
Powell noted the prosecutor, in closing arguments, acknowledged it was impossible to see the back door and suggested Ziemba meant to say she saw Aulisio leading the children toward the home. Jurors weighed that and still convicted him of the crime.
Powell also argues Aulisio cannot prevail because federal rules require he present evidence that was not previously known to support his claim of innocence.
"Here, Aulisio fails to present any new evidence that he is actually innocent," Powell said. "Rather, he relies on trial testimony that has existed in transcripts for over 40 years."
Even if the court were to consider it new evidence, other evidence presented at trial clearly shows he was guilty, Powell said. That evidence included Aulisio's admitting he cleaned up the crime scene and he was seen driving a car in which blood and other evidence from the crime was found.
Chief U.S. District Judge W. Matthew Brann will review the arguments and rule at a later date.
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