WILKES-BARRE — Over strong objections by double-homicide suspect Hugo Selenski, Luzerne County Judge Fred Pierantoni on Monday removed Selenski’s lead defense attorney, Shelley Centini, from the case.
The dismissal of Centini, 38, happened three weeks before the start of jury selection in the capital murder trial that has often been delayed since Selenski, 40, was charged in May 2006 in the strangulation killings of Michael Kerkowski and Tammy Fassett.
Pierantoni granted the District Attorney’s Office’s request to remove Centini after the state Office of Attorney General last month charged her and Selenski with intimidating at least five prosecution witnesses in the homicide case. Prosecutors claimed there was a conflict of interest with Centini defending Selenski as they are now co-defendants in the witness intimidation case, which was filed in Dauphin County.
Selenski objected to Centini’s removal, noting he understood he would be waiving his right to appeal if a jury convicts him in the killings of Kerkowski and Fassett. He is facing the death penalty or life in prison without parole if convicted of first-degree murder.
Pierantoni quickly re-appointed co-defense lawyer Walter Rymsza, who refused to accept Centini’s former position as “first chair,” or lead defense lawyer. The judge said the court will “attempt” to find another qualified attorney to be appointed to the defense team, rescheduling the trial for May 19.
“At this point, you think you’re going to find an attorney that wants to come on this case,” Selenski said afterwards as he was escorted from the courthouse. “I would think that he (Pierantoni) got mental problems.”
Rymsza called the scheduled trial date “a hollow date,” arguing any attorney appointed to the case will not be ready, especially as lead defense attorney.
“We have an issue here,” Selenski said in open court.
As he did in June 2011, Selenski offered to defend himself, a suggestion Pierantoni ignored Monday but may revisit at a later date.
Selenski for three months in 2011 was without defense attorneys as a former judge granted the release of his then lead defense lawyer, John Pike. Centini and Rymsza were hired as independent contractors to defend Selenski in January 2012.
State prosecutors presented evidence to a grand jury in 2013 alleging Centini and private investigator James Sulima, 49, who was also hired by the court, delivered letters written by Selenski to at least five prosecution witnesses at Rob’s Pub and Grub restaurant in Larksville in July.
Centini, Sulima and Selenski were charged on Jan. 27 with multiple counts of witness intimidation, criminal conspiracy, tampering with evidence and perjury. Preliminary hearings for the three are scheduled on May 17.