DA to appeal ruling ordering new hearing in 1975 slaying

Prosecutors will ask Pennsylvania's highest court to reverse an appeals court ruling overturning the first-degree murder conviction and life sentence of a former northwestern Pennsylvania high school teacher in the strangulation death of a student more than four decades ago.

The Erie County district attorney's office said Friday that it will ask the Pennsylvania Supreme Court within 30 days to step into the case of former Strong Vincent High School teacher Raymond Payne, The Erie Times-News reported.

Payne, now 81, pleaded guilty to a general count of murder in the 1975 strangulation death of 16-year-old Debbie Gama. A three-judge panel convicted him of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life term without possibility of parole, after a hearing in which he argued guilt of only third-degree murder, or an unpremeditated killing with malice.

A 6-3 Superior Court decision last month overturned the first-degree conviction and ordered a new degree-of-guilt hearing, citing 2014 tests indicating that Payne's DNA didn't match seminal material found on the body.

Payne told investigators in 1976 that Gama died accidentally after he gave her drugs and tied her up to take sexual pictures of her, according to the dissenting opinion in the appeals court ruling.

If convicted of third-degree murder, the maximum penalty in effect at the time of Payne's conviction -- 20 years -- would apply, although the maximum penalty has since been raised to 20 to 40 years.