ALLENTOWN, Pa. - New attorneys for convicted teen killer Jamie Silvonek are petitioning the courts to overturn her guilty plea and send the case to juvenile court, where they argue the case of a 14-year-old accused of killing her mother belonged.
The Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center last week filed a motion appealing Silvonek’s 35-years-to-life sentence, citing ineffectual representation by her former attorney, John Waldron. The now 18-year-old was only 14 when she and Caleb Barnes killed her mother, Cheryl Silvonek, in the driveway of the family’s Upper Macungie Township home in March 2015. They stabbed her to death and dumped the body in a shallow grave.
In February 2016, Silvonek pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, conspiracy, abuse of corpse and tampering with evidence. She has a chance to eventually be released because juvenile offenders in the state cannot be sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole.
In August 2016, a jury convicted the now 25-year-old Barnes on all counts. He was sentenced to life in prison. Authorities had accused of Barnes and Silvonek, who were dating, of plotting to kill Cheryl Silvonek because she disapproved of their relationship.
Silvonek’s new attorneys accuse Waldron of failing to meet “even the minimal standards for effective representation under the Constitution’s due process guarantees,” according to court papers.
Specifically, he failed to address the “specific needs and circumstances” of a 14-year-old girl with no criminal history, but a history of trauma and emotional and psychological issues.
The lengthy court filing chronicles Silvonek’s anxiety and insecurity about her appearance and physical development, which attorneys argue made her particularly vulnerable to the abusive and controlling Barnes.
The Juvenile Law Center said the only case in the state’s history that is even close to Silvonek’s in the 1999 conviction of 11-year-old Miriam White. The girl had serious mental health issues and killed a stranger in the street. She pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and was sentenced to 18 to 40 years in prison.
Since White’s conviction, Silvonek’s attorneys argue that a body of research shows young defendants are more susceptible to negative influences, lack proper judgement and are open to rehabilitation, all of which has factored into Supreme Court decisions striking down mandatory life sentences for juveniles.
But Silvonek’s previous legal team barely mentioned trauma in its expert reports and court filings and presented no evidence to the scope of Barnes’ physical and emotional abuse, according to court papers.
Waldron petitioned Lehigh County Court to transfer Silvonek’s case to juvenile court, a request that was eventually denied. The Juvenile Law Center argues Waldron failed his client when he filed a less-than-robust argument for transferring the case.
The defense’s expert witness for what is known as a decertification hearing was given only a few weeks to evaluate Silvonek and write a report. And the hearing was held before a judge ruled on several pre-trial motions, including one to suppress Silvonek’s text messages to Barnes.
Waldron called only three witnesses during the hearing compared to the six called by prosecutors, according to court papers. The defense also failed to call witnesses to rebut prosecution witnesses, who attacked Silvonek’s character, according to the appeal.
Waldron defended his representation of Silvonek, saying the case hinged on whether he could have the case sent to juvenile court.
“I had nationally renowned experts testify,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The judge made her decision, and I was forced to negotiate the best possible plea.”
Waldron called the text messages between Silvonek and Barnes “devastating.”
“Basically, the texts indicated she wanted her mother killed,” Waldron wrote. “It’s a very sad case.”
The Lehigh County District Attorney’s Office on Tuesday declined comment on the appeal.
Silvonek’s attorneys also criticized Judge Maria Dantos’ involvement in the case. Court records show Waldron and Assistant District Attorney Jeffrey Dimmig met with the judge in chambers as they negotiated a plea deal, and Dantos told the attorneys that she wouldn’t accept anything less than a 35-year prison term.
Along with seeking a new trial, Silvonek’s attorneys are asking that Dantos recuse herself from the case going forward.
The defense argues Silvonek made decisions based on advice that lacked proper investigation, and that Waldron failed to push for a different sentence after the judge expressed her opinion.
“She did not have any of the surrounding framework needed for an informed decision,” according to Silvonek’s attorneys. “This left a 14-year-old girl with an already overwhelming decision to make feeling unrealistic pressure to accept a plea without knowing all of her options.”
The Juvenile Law Center is asking the courts to consider several options, including vacating the guilty plea and sentence, vacating the decision not to send the case to juvenile court or ordering a new decertification hearing. A hearing on the case has been scheduled for June 3.
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