Cleeves would be required to have two defense lawyers if prosecutors choose to seek the death penalty. As of Friday evening, he did not have a lawyer listed in the Pennsylvania court system.
The defense team could try to suppress an alleged confession from a phone call the night of the killings, Ritter said. Forensics will be very important in the case, she said.
“At first blush, it doesn’t look like a particularly difficult case to prosecute, especially if he’s confessed,” she said.
The district attorney’s office might build its case on other types of evidence.
“A lot of times, cases are tried without eyewitnesses,” said Andrews, who now is in private practice in Carlisle, Pa.
Court documents indicate Cleeves’ 4-year-old daughter, Leia, might be one of the few surviving witnesses to the shootings.
“A 4-year-old is rarely deemed old enough to testify. ... It’d surprise me if she’d play a role in the evidence,” Ritter said, saying police certainly could talk to her when piecing together what happened.
“I think it’d be very unusual for a 4-year-old to give testimony under any circumstances,” Andrews said.
However, if two years pass before a trial, a 6-year-old would be more likely to testify, he said.
“A child under 6 is presumed to not know what it means to take an oath,” Dayan said.
In neighboring Cumberland County, it would take about two years for a case such as Cleeves’ to go to trial, Andrews said. Rules establish time frames under which cases should proceed, but continuances are very common, he said.
“The appeals courts are putting more and more burdens on the defense in a capital case,” Andrews said.
Appeals and post-conviction filings are typical because a defendant needs to be tried in a fair and just way, Dayan said. Mistakes can be made, as is proven by the more than 140 death row inmates exonerated across the country, including six from Pennsylvania, he said.
It is vital that a defense attorney develops a rapport with his client, which is something that did not happen with Reid, Kulla said. Reid would not share information with his attorneys, he said.
Andrews said that, in cases such as these, the gravity of the situation is difficult on everyone involved. Emotions can be strong, which he said is hard on both the prosecution and defense.