OPINION: Don’t plea-bargain gun charges in trooper’s death

Published: Friday, January 07, 2011, 12:30 AM     Updated: Friday, January 07, 2011, 4:32 PM

http://www.lehighvalleylive.com

Pennsylvania state troopers are understandably upset over a pending plea deal in federal court that would allow Emily Gross to cop to a charge of lying on a gun application, dismissing an aiding-and-abetting charge in connection with the killing of Trooper Joshua Miller. The troopers aren’t just offended, they’re right. Gross should answer to the more serious charge for her alleged role in the murder of a state trooper and the wounding of another. And the family of the slain trooper should have been kept in the loop about any plea arrangement.

There’s still time to change this.

Gross, of Westfield, N.J., is scheduled to plead guilty Feb. 2 in U.S. District Court to one of the two charges — that she lied about her address when she bought a 9 mm handgun in May 2009 at a Cabela’s store near Hamburg, Pa. Afterward, she took the gun to the home of her boyfriend, Daniel Autenrieth, of Palmer Township, who used the gun to kill Miller and wound Trooper Robert Lombardo in a June 7, 2009, shootout in Monroe County, according to authorities.

Gross isn’t just accused of falsifying a gun application. She is alleged to have “aided and abetted” the provision of a weapon to Autenrieth, who was not permitted to possess a gun under a protection-from-abuse order obtained by his wife. Nine days after the gun purchase, Autenrieth kidnapped his 9-year-old son from his wife’s home in Nazareth, starting a police chase that ended when he shot and killed Miller at close range and wounded Lombardo, according to authorities. Autenrieth also was killed.

Gross’ attorney says he will challenge the prosecutor’s claim that Gross knew Autenrieth was banned from possessing a gun under a protection-from-abuse order.

In a case separate from the federal case, Pennsylvania State Police charged Gross with four counts of conspiracy and one count of lending a prohibited firearm. The charges were thrown out by a Monroe County judge who ruled they should have been filed in Berks County, where the gun was bought, or Northampton County, where Autenrieth lived. The Monroe County prosecutor appealed that dismissal to state Superior Court; a decision won’t be issued until this summer or later.

Because of these uncertainties, the federal charges should be tried in federal court, to bring the details to light and render a clear verdict on Gross’ alleged involvement in the killing.

That’s essentially the position of a letter to the federal prosecutor by Bruce A. Edwards, president of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, asking that the negotiated plea be abandoned.

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