While a dramatic disciplinary hearing transpired in Harrisburg over disgraced former Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller, there were some noticeably absent members of the Centre County legal community in the PA Supreme Courthouse assigned courtroom.
The proceedings were packed. But Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna and Centre County Deputy District Attorney Sean McGraw had better things to do – closing arguments in the trial of George Ishler and Danelle Geier for the murder of Ronald Bettig had ended Friday.
Jury was out for deliberations and there was no telling how long they would take to decide, but both Cantorna and McGraw declined to attend the disciplinary board hearing of former DA Stacy Parks Miller who claimed that these two men were politically motivated to “destroy her.”
Frankly, neither of them really cared. To her, it may have boiled down to vindictiveness, political attacks and unseemly motivations to “steal her job.” But these were typical maneuverings.
When boiled down, one or both of them could have probably filed something to make the hearing, but neither of them cared enough. They were focused on bigger things. When I asked about the case it had as much weight and seriousness as “it rained today.”
One would think that if this were a “politically motivated conspiracy” to destroy her, then Cantorna or McGraw would have shown up to make sure the job was done properly. Instead, they sat tapping their feet waiting nervously for a jury, which incidentally didn’t take nearly as long as they likely thought to come back.
A Pennsylvania Furnace man and a Lemont woman were found guilty of all charges, including first-degree murder, for the August 2016 death of 56-year-old Penn State professor Ronald Bettig. CITATION
While most District Attorneys make “sentencing recommendations” and demand the worst for their Defendants in effort to get good press results, Cantorna made no sentencing recommendation and/or suggestion, believing that the matter of sentencing was left to the discretion of the judge.
Both were sentenced to the mandatory minimum sentence of imprisonment for the rest of their natural lives. CITATION
Clearly, if you have been following my coverage on this case, I do not agree with the decision of the Judge. Danelle Geier was a pawn in this situation, with limited intellectual capacity (documented). And though she was deserving some of some time, life in prison without the possibility of parole was excessive. She sat in a parked car and did not report it. She did not shove Dr. Bettig from the edge of a cliff, her biggest mistake was failing to report it. Purportedly, she was also under the threats of a sexually abusive Uncle and had been sexually and physically abused throughout her lifetime.
- “It was a result of a lot of hard work by the state police and a joint investigation with the State College police department. A lot of people put their heart and soul into this investigation and I’m happy we were able to bring some closure to Dr. Bettig’s family,” Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna said. CITATION
Cantorna was careful not to comment about the sentencing. It is not his job to sentence or to influence a Judge about sentencing. Cantorna’s job, and the job of the DA’s office, is to prove guilt or innocence. He proved guilt, the Judge picked the sentence. We will never know whether Cantorna agrees with the sentence of Danelle Geier because it’s not his place. And unlike his predecessor Stacy Parks Miller, who sat in front of the disciplinary board today with the prospect of losing her license, Cantorna doesn’t walk grey ethical lines.
Cantorna did say that Ishler and Geier were motivated financially. This I cannot deny. According to family members, Geier treated herself to too many happy meals and smoked too much of Dr. Bettig’s stash of pot. According to family and other sources, some who testified during trial, Ishler’s financial motivations were far more sophisticated. Ishler came up with the plot of the will. Geier couldn’t convincingly lie to a jury or even her own family members could not have sold water to a parched man. She was a personality capable of playing UNO – not a chess player.
Karen Muir, defense attorney for Ishler, said Bettig committed suicide and jumped to his death. CITATION Muir’s defense left much to be desired and explained. If it was the case that Bettig had jumped to his death, why did Geier report seeing “pebbles” in Ishler’s knee cap when they returned home for garden tools, a map and a flashlight to stage a crime scene?
Deborah Lux, defense attorney for Geier, said Geier did not have a motive to kill the professor and was acting only because she was threatened by Ishler. CITATION This defense is actually palpable if you look at Geier’s long history of sexusal and physical abuse, combined with her well-documented status as “special needs” or “developmentally delayed” classification.
Cantorna mentions to the press that he spoke with some of the members of Bettig’s family who reported they were satisfied with the results of the case: “They’re thankful that they’ll never be allowed to harm another person in society — and that society is protected as a result of that verdict,” Cantorna said. “But it doesn’t bring their brother back or their father back. It’s only some solace.” CITATION
Admittedly, hearing that sentitment from the Bettig family also made me feel good. But the problem with the criminal justice system in America is that it operates on a concept of retaliatory justice. And if you ever talk to any family members of victims in this justice system, the verdict renders both relief and an unexpected disappointment. Relief because these families cooperate and fight alongside for a result. Disappointment because no matter what result of trial and sentencing, one fact remains: Dr. Bettig is still dead. And no matter how many people suffer and to what extent, that’s not going to heal that loss by any stretch of the imagination.
Geier expressed sorrow before her sentence was delivered by President Judge Pamela Ruest. “I’m sorry for what I’ve done,” Geier said. CITATION I am – quite frankly – surprised that this “democratic” judge could eliminate evidence from being heard by the jury about Geier’s well-documented life-long history of mental defects. I’m also surprised she did not take into account the history of abuse that runs in this family. I’m further surprised that the sentences were even, though the culpability could not be less so. Clearly, George Ishler was the conniving and manipulative orchestrator of these events and Geier was a sort of pawn-like character scarred by physical and sexual abuse as well as a intellectual disability. I oftentimes wonder if Ruest does things with voters and media coverage in mind, as opposed to justice.
Throughout the trial, Cantorna said he was able to learn an extensive amount about Bettig and referred to him as a caring man and a man of the people. CITATION With Cantorna’s sensitive observation, I would ask the question to my readers if they thought that Bettig would want to to see his romantic partner Geier incarcerated and away from the the toddler (a child they both loved) for the rest of their lives. Would these be the wishes of Dr. Bettig? And did that at all factor into the decision making process of Judge Pamela Ruest?
“Ronald Bettig was a man ahead of his time; people just didn’t realize it,” Cantorna said. “His body of work was based on analyzing the media and the source of media. Believing that you needed to have a critical eye for where you get your source of information. This was written 10 and 15 years ago. He was talking about things that people are now talking about 10 years ago.” CITATION No sequence of words could make my heart break any further. While some people labeled Bettig like they might label Happy Valley Citizen, as a nutty government conspiracist, Cantorna didn’t leave that observation off the table as he worried it might ostracize the judge or the jury. He brought it up, and he did it in a way that paid immense tribute to the victim. It was these deep thought-out empathies and kind observations that we missed in the previous administration. Cantorna took a minute to pay attention to the man, to sit and think about the decedent he was representing, and what that great intellectual man stood for.
Cantorna also expressed admiration for Bettig as a man who “helped out the underdogs” and those who did not have all of the benefits that society has to offer. CITATION Cantorna, a former Plaintiff’s lawyer himself, was not about to miss this observation about standing up for the underdogs. And I am sure that observation spoke volumes to the non-lawyer panel of jurors who had likely – at one point or another – been underdogs themselves. “That’s why he brought Danelle Geier and George Ishler into his life. It was not the first time he had done that. He spent a lifetime helping people,” Cantorna said. “He was a brilliant man. He listened to a different drum beat and he offered great wisdom to an area of study that people will still refer to.” CITATION
Cantorna didn’t hammer away at punishment – that’s not in his job description. He had proved his case beyond a reasonable doubt and he knew the line. The judge decided the sentencing.
I would imagine that Cantorna approves of the life long sentence of George Ishler, who was a sexually abusive sociopath, and whose family relayed to me We all knew he was bad, but we didn’t think he was capable of this.
What the family did ask for was mercy for Dannelle. They didn’t give a damn about George Ishler. They all agreed that Dannelle deserved some time, but they thought the plea bargain of 25 years was excessive. And it is strange to me that Judge Ruest denied admittance of her psychological and academic records onto the public record. She denied that documentation into evidence.
It’s funny, because as sensitive and compassionate and forward-thinking as Bernie is, I wonder if he doesn’t strike a quiet disagreement with the sentencing decision of Judge Ruest today. And if he did, we would never know about it. And like I said, it isn’t in his job description to decide penalties. It’s his job to prove the case of the commonwealth.
So when I question if Danelle Geier’s life sentence was fair it’s no reflection on the current District Attorney’s administration. Perhaps it is a reflection on Judge Ruest, who to this day, somehow can’t remember if she signed a fake bail order.
What I propose to you is not that Judge Ruest has the unethical proclivities of Judge Lunsford, who resigned in disgrace, but I suggest – instead – that maybe she isn’t the ethical progressive Judge we want her so badly to be.
And I bet, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the PCRA for Danelle gets turned over on appeal, because Lux made some of the worst decisions and failed to file some of the most crucial motions she could have in this case. Which all goes back to how public defenders should be paid more. But that’s a story for another day.
My prayers for the Bettigs, and Happy Valley, who lost one of the softest, most compassionate, deepest thinking, soulful and sweetest citizen in this community. My prayers for the Geiers who will raise Dannelle’s toddler, and my prayers for that toddler that he/she may grow to know their mother not as the evil woman the media and Judge Ruest portrayed this woman, but as a woman with flaws and weaknesses, wrought with intellectual incapacities, and scarred and marred by sexual abuse.
And my greatest happiness is that while Parks Miller faced consequences today, Cantorna put that on low priority and put his focus where it mattered. Unlike his predecessor, his heart is with this community.
And lastly, to the Geier’s, (and may the Bettig family forgive me for saying this), but I hope Danelle can appeal that sentence on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel and poor rulings by Ruest not to allow the academic and psychological records displaying her intellectual disabilities, history of physical and sexual abuse, and her general vulnerabilities into evidence in this case.
I know everybody is a fan of Ruest, but she leaves me with questions and doubts, particularly not remembering whether or not she signed the “fake bail order.” Especially when she told Deputy District Attorney Sean McGraw that she never signed it (according to records) and after personally knowing McGraw for almost 20 years, I’ve never once found him to lie on any occasion even when he had good reason to. There are a lot of things you can say to criticize McGraw – being a “liar” is not one of them. A hot-headed, hot-tempered, vigilante – he has plenty of flaws. Lying is NEVER one of them.
So I know it’s controversial for me to question the political motivations of Ruest, but I do, in many instances. Specifically here, I question her judgement in the sentencing of Dannelle Geier.
As for George Ishler: let him sit in jail forever. He removed a beautiful, compassionate and brilliant man from this earth. And because of that, this whole community and the Bettig family suffers at the hands of that senseless loss.