District Attorney Says Ditz Murder Trial Shows County Takes Domestic Violence ‘Seriously’
That is how Clarion County District Attorney Mark Aaron frames the third-degree murder conviction he got against Damien Ditz on charges Ditz shot his girlfriend, Katrina Seaburn, in the early evening hours of March 1, 2017, in the parking area of a trailer park in the Lake Lucy area of Washington Township, Clarion County.
“I think it (the case) is an indication that we will take domestic violence seriously,” Aaron said. “Even though this was a tough case, when necessary, we will go to the wall and end up here in court if we have to. We will strive to get justice in these domestic cases.”
Aaron knows that only one person will ever really know what happened in Seaburn’s car, which Ditz was driving, in the early evening hours of the night of Seaburn’s death.
“I would classify it as a tough (case) because only one person knows what 100 percent happened inside that car,” Aaron said. “It’s the defendant.”
What is known about the case is that Seaburn, a 22-year old Clarion University senior from Curwensville who was just over two months from graduation, was shot to death by a 45-caliber Glock in possession of Damien Ditz. Ditz was found guilty of shooting her with malice (thus, the murder charge as opposed to a manslaughter conviction) by a jury over seven women and five men after a week-long trial at the Clarion County Courthouse that wrapped up o Friday, December 7, 2018.
However, what came from the trial that was prosecuted by Aaron with Pittsburgh-based attorney Adam Bishop defending Ditz was that outside of the tragic and needless death of Seaburn, the evidence presented left the jury with a difficult decision to make.
In the end, the jury decided that Aaron’s case was more compelling and ruled the way it did.
Even so, the evidence the jury heard was mainly circumstantial with no one else in the car but Ditz and Seaburn, who were dating at the time, and while a couple of witnesses heard the gunshot, no one else saw the shooting take place.
Aaron painted a case of a boyfriend who shot his girlfriend in anger after an argument ensued over $130.00 Ditz had lent to his friend, DeShon Smerker.
Ditz (whose lawyer never was going for a not guilty verdict but instead was aiming for involuntary manslaughter decision while Aaron was aiming for murder in the first-degree) didn’t deny possessing the gun that shot Seaburn. Although, he did change his story to the police three times (twice on the night of the shooting) before coming to his final version.
In Ditz’s final version of events, the gun had slid off the dashboard, where it had been resting for nearly 24 hours, as he turned into the trailer park. He then said he took the gun and placed it by the car’s console. Then, after parking the car, he went to move the gun to the backseat while the discussion over the $130.00 continued, and he said that he waved the gun while saying he would get the money back from Smerker, and the gun went off.
During testimony on Thursday, December 6, Ditz said he had lied to police because he was scared.
“I was afraid they wouldn’t believe me,” Ditz told the jury. “They would say I murdered my girlfriend.”
During closing arguments, Aaron grabbed ahold of that remark to try to make his case stronger.
“I don’t agree with a lot of what the defense has said,” Aaron said. “But, I agree with this: If the defendant had come out and told the truth, he would have been charged with murder, and he would have been right because that’s what he did.”
Aaron said the reason Ditz lied to police was that he was protecting himself.
“He lied to his cousin Brandon Strotman (the shooting took place outside of Strotman’s trailer),” Aaron said during closing arguments. “He already had a story. How long had he been thinking of his story? He didn’t want people to know the truth.”
After playing the 9-1-1 call, Aaron pointed out the first thing Ditz told the 9-1-1 dispatcher was that he had a concealed carry permit for the gun.
“He was protecting himself,” Aaron said. “Isn’t the first thing you would do if the shooting was accidental is to tell them your girlfriend was shot? No, he talks about his permit.”
During the trial, Aaron relied mainly on three separate interviews Ditz had with Pennsylvania State Police: one of the night of the incident at the Marienville barracks; the second on May 16, 2017, at the home of Ditz’s father, Fred, in Clarion; and the third on June 20, 2017, at the Ridgway Police barracks. In none of the interviews, including the one in Ridgway where Ditz was interviewed for seven hours, did Ditz have a lawyer present, and he wasn’t arrested until at the end of the seven-hour interview. (The defense had tried early in 2018 to have those statements suppressed, but Clarion County Judge James Arner ruled they were admissible.)
A large portion of the interviews was played in the courtroom for the jury. (The seven hours on June 20, 2017, were edited down to about two hours with the input of both lawyers.) The police were aggressive in their questioning of Ditz as they progressed, even as they portrayed the interviews as friendly discussions to find out what happened.
After sticking with his original story at the start of the June 20, 2017 interview, Ditz eventually ended up saying he shot Seaburn.
“I didn’t intentionally shoot her,” Ditz told the officers. “I did not intentionally pull the trigger of that gun. I did not intentionally put force on it to make the gun go off.”
Bishop, on the other hand, laid out a picture of a tragic if not careless accident that while it didn’t need to happen, his client didn’t shoot his girlfriend, whom he professed to love, on purpose.
The defense called many character witnesses to show that in the days leading up to the shooting, Ditz and Seaburn at least seemed like a normal, loving couple. That included testimony from Ditz’s uncle, Dave Beary, who saw the couple on both February 27, 2017, and February 28, 2017, and Ditz’s cousin, Clinton Beichner, who along with Beichner’s girlfriend, had gone night fishing in Pymatuning, Pa., with Ditz and Seaburn on the night of February 28, 2017, into the early morning of March 1, 2017.
When Bishop asked Beary if anything seemed off between Ditz and Seaburn on February 27, 2017, when the couple and Beary went rabbit hunting, Beary responded, “No.”
Bishop then asked Beary if the couple seemed to be getting along, and Beary said, “Yes.”
When he questioned Beichner, Bishop asked if the couple was getting along the night of February 28 when they went fishing.
Beichner responded, “Yes, as far as I could tell, they were getting along fine.”
Aaron countered those witnesses by pointing out that most domestic arguments occur away from the public eye.
Bishop also tried to paint a picture of a broken up boyfriend following the shooting relying on eyewitness testimony – mainly from additional relatives of Ditz, including two other cousins – Jennifer Graham and Brandon Strotman – who were inside Strotman’s trailer in the trailer park when the fatal shot was fired.
All of the witnesses, including Clarion-area doctor Timothy Brooks who treated Ditz in the evening of March 2, 2017, said Ditz was in bad shape including shaking, throwing up, refusing to eat, sweating, inconsolable and clutching a necklace owned by Seaburn the night and days following the shooting.
In fact, Ditz was still seen to be physically disturbed by the details during the trial.
On Tuesday, the first day of testimony, the trial had to be recessed early because of a “medical emergency” to Ditz following the playing on the 9-1-1 calls – one from Ditz and one from Graham – on the night of the shooting. Ditz could be heard in the men’s restroom on the second floor of the Clarion County Courthouse dry heaving during an initial 15-minute recess.
Then, when Bishop was asking Ditz to walk him through what happened on the night of March 1, 2017, Ditz had to leave the witness stand and come to the defense table to pull things together after crying and becoming almost inaudible on the stand. When he returned to the stand, his shoulders were slumped, and he was clenching his fists in a ball. Then, when the trial, went into a recess, Ditz could again be seen at the defense table with his head buried into the table crying while being consoled by Bishop and family members.
Ditz was more composed following the recess when Aaron questioned him for only a few minutes asking him if he had pulled the trigger, and Ditz answered “Yes.”
Aaron jumped on the fact that Ditz was calmer when he interviewed him, inferring during his closing arguments that Ditz might have been able to control his emotions.
Earlier, during his questioning from Bishop, Ditz three times answered, “No, I did not.” when asked by Bishop if he had “murdered his girlfriend,” if he had “intentionally pulled the trigger,” and if he had “meant to hurt” Seaburn.
Ditz could now face between five and 40 years in state prison when sentenced at 1:00 p.m. on January 23, 2019, at the Clarion County Courthouse by Judge Arner.
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