Weapons will remain in evidence in Amato trialBy MARY ANN GREIER Staff Writer
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LISBON - Weapons evidence which resulted in additional charges against murder defendant Jack (J.C.) Amato Jr. will remain in evidence after a judge found no problem with a search warrant issued last September.
Judge Joseph Bruzzese Jr. issued his decision Monday afternoon, overruling a motion filed by Amato's defense team to challenge the legality of the search warrant and demand the resulting evidence be tossed.
He found that probable cause existed for the warrant to be issued as is, despite arguments by defense attorney James Hartford that law enforcement officials "deliberately deceived" Columbiana County Common Pleas Court Judge C. Ashley Pike into issuing the search warrant by including incorrect information and leaving out other information known at the time.
"The court further finds that to the extent that actual facts varied from those set forth in the affidavit that the variances were slight, inconsequential and unintentional," Bruzzese wrote in the eight-page decision.
A Common Pleas Court judge in Jefferson County, Bruzzese was appointed to handle the search warrant motion since Pike issued the warrant which came under fire. Pike is handling both the murder case and the weapons case against Amato.
Amato, 37, was charged last year with murder and having weapons under disability in the shooting death of his wife, Tonia, at their Wellsville residence on July 1, 2007. He claimed self-defense, saying she fired a gun at him first after an argument and then he shot her with a .45-caliber handgun.
He had been released from jail after his father posted bond and had been confined under electronic monitoring at his father's Irondale home awaiting trial. During a search of the Irondale residence on Sept. 17 for a gun involved in the shooting, investigators found guns and an alleged pipe bomb in Amato's room, leading to an additional five counts of having weapons under disability and one count of possession of a dangerous ordnance, all felonies. As a defendant in a felony case, he was prohibited from having weapons.
He remains jailed under the bond for the weapons case, which remains set for trial on May 19, with a status hearing set for 11:30 a.m. May 11. The murder trial remains scheduled for Aug. 18, with a status hearing at 9 a.m. Aug. 10 and a telephone conference set for 8:45 a.m. Friday. The prosecution in both cases is being handled by Special Prosecutor Lynn Grimshaw, who was appointed when county Prosecutor Robert Herron recused himself due to a conflict.
In his ruling, Bruzzese addressed various arguments raised by the defense, including the fact that Detective Lt. Andy Sweeney of the county Sheriff's Office concluded the bullet containing the victim's DNA was the bullet that killed her, even though the coroner's office didn't make any conclusion. The reason for the search was to find a .45-caliber gun to match the bullet after investigators determined the gun they had didn't match what they concluded was the fatal bullet.
"An examination of the affidavit alone reveals sufficient true facts from which any judge could have and would have concluded the bullet in question was probably the fatal bullet," he wrote.
He also ruled that information left out of the search warrant would not have made a difference in the finding of probable cause to allow the search, concluding the evidence that the bullet was found in line with the defendant's position at the time of the incident and the victim's location actually strengthened the argument for probable cause.
The argument that the search should have been limited to a "competition" .45-caliber weapon also failed, because the search would have turned up the same evidence whether authorities were looking for a "competition" weapon or regular weapon.
The judge wrote that testimony by a doctor from the Cuyahoga County Coroner's Office had no effect on the probable cause. The doctor had told the defense he would have expected half the bullet's mass to be missing when less than half was missing. His conclusion wasn't known to Sweeney at the time of the affidavit, and the doctor testified that he didn't know the original weight of the bullet.