Mistrial spurs double-jeopardy debate

A mistrial declared last week by a Chester County Court judge sparked debate today about whether the defendant, Morgan M. Mengel, should be re-tried.

A week ago, Senior Judge Thomas G. Gavin said a witness' recounting of a derogatory comment made about the defendant by her father would likely prevent her from getting a fair trial. Mengel, a 36-year-old West Goshen Township mother of three, is accused of conspiring with her lover, Stephen Shappell, 22, of Broomall, to kill her husband, Kevin Mengel Jr., 33, on June 17, 2010.

During the trial, a prosecutor elicited testimony from a West Goshen police officer, who said that while investigating the case, he met with Mengel's father, who reportedly said his daughter "could be despicable." After defense attorney Jack McMahon objected, the judge instructed the jury to disregard the remark as inadmissible hearsay. Later, McMahon  argued that the jury was irrevocably tainted, and Gavin agreed, declaring a mistrial.

Today, McMahon argued that the remark amounted to intentional prosecutorial misconduct. Eliciting a comment designed to deprive the defendant of a fair trial should bar further prosecution based on double jeopardy, McMahon said. But Chief Deputy District Attorney Nick Cassenta strongly disagreed, and he called the prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Deborah Ryan, to testify. She explained why she thought the comment was admissible as "an excited utterance." The judge, who previously commended Ryan for her honesty and said he did not believe prosecutorial misconduct occurred, said he would issue a ruling by mid-March.

Last week's trial was interrupted before Shappell took the stand against his former paramour. He pleaded guilty in December and received a 40- to 80-year prison term. Prosecutors contend he and Mengel attempted to poison the victim by spiking his Snapple with liquid nicotine. When the toxin failed to take effect, Shappell, an employee of the landscaping company the Mengels owned, fatally bludgeoned his employer with shovels from the business. He fled to Colorado when officers arrived to question the couple a week after the murder. By then, the victim's family had grown suspicious of texts they received from Kevin Mengel that seemed out of character. Police said Morgan Mengel sent the phony messages from her husband's phone in an effort to make people think he was still alive.