Conviction overturned in 1997 murder case

A Holmesburg man convicted of murder in 1998 last week had his conviction overturned.

Paul McKernan was convicted by a Common Pleas Court judge of killing Mark Gibson, a former coworker and roommate, by hitting him in the head with an aluminum baseball bat.

Almost 19 years after he was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit tossed out the conviction.

The court did so because Judge Lisa Richette, who died in 2007, met with Gibson’s mother and brother in her chambers during the trial in an effort to convince them that her reputation for leniency was not true.

The late actor Charlton Heston, onetime president of the NRA, had been in Philadelphia a month before the trial for the group’s convention. In a speech, he referred to Richette as “Let ’em Loose Lisa.” Former Mayor Frank L. Rizzo gave Richette the nickname.

The Gibson family also created a website chronicling Richette’s lenient reputation.

In the 75-minute meeting, held after the prosecution’s case ended and before the defense began its case, Richette told Beatrice and David Gibson that they were lucky to have Mark Gilson as the prosecutor, calling him “one of the best DAs in the world.”

The court faulted McKernan’s lawyer, who was in the meeting with the family, for not objecting or asking Richette to recuse herself.

Richette found McKernan guilty and, since the prosecution was not seeking the death penalty, sentenced him to the mandatory life in prison.

McKernan, now 52, is housed at the State Correctional Institution at Somerset.

The district attorney’s office has 60 days from the Feb. 28 court decision to decide to appeal the ruling or try McKernan again.

McKernan and Gibson were friends and fellow auto mechanics. In May 1997, Gibson moved into a spare bedroom at the McKernan house, on the 8500 block of Marsden St. He left the house a few weeks later.

Gibson, 27, went to the house at about 6 p.m. on Sept. 17, 1997 to retrieve a cable television box that he had left when he moved out of the house. He was accompanied by a friend, Joe Rogers.

At the trial in July 1998, Rogers testified that Gibson and McKernan began arguing about money. He said McKernan grabbed a bat from the inside of his front door. Gibson went to his Monte Carlo and got a pry bar. He told McKernan that if he broke his car windows with the baseball bat, Gibson would do the same to his car. Ultimately, he said he would come back for the cable box later.

Rogers got into the driver’s seat, saw Gibson reach for the passenger seat door, then heard a loud thump. He got out of the car and found his friend bleeding on the ground. Rogers told McKernan to call an ambulance.

“F — — him. He got what he deserved,’ ” Rogers testified that McKernan responded.

Another witness, David Thompson, said McKernan hit Gibson from behind.

McKernan testified that he did not hand over the cable box because Gibson had not paid him for a tool tray. The defendant said Gibson walked over to his car with the pry bar and asked, “How do you like your precious Lincoln now?”

McKernan said Gibson attacked him with the pry bar, hitting him in the forearms. That’s when McKernan said he noticed a baseball bat his son had left leaning against the fence. According to his testimony, he picked up the bat and, as Gibson was swinging the pry bar, hit him in the chest with a one-handed, backhand swing. The blow, McKernan said, caused Gibson to fall and hit his head.

Assistant Medical Examiner Edwin Lieberman said Gibson suffered a fractured skull and other internal and external injuries. His death was caused by a blow to the head, Lieberman testified, not by his fall.

In the end, Richette called McKernan “violent” and “mindless.” She ruled that he acted with premeditation and intent to kill. ••