Calling the outcome of her case “shocking,” lawyers for Upper Macungie Township teen Jamie Silvonek are seeking to have her murder conviction and 35-years-to-life sentence for killing her mother overturned, claiming Silvonek’s former attorney was ineffective.
Silvonek, 18, is the youngest person ever charged with homicide in Lehigh County. She was 14 when she and her soldier boyfriend, Caleb Barnes, were arrested in the fatal March 15, 2015, stabbing of 54-year-old Cheryl Silvonek.
Jamie Silvonek pleaded guilty in 2016 to first-degree murder and related charges. Barnes was convicted following a trial in 2017 and sentenced to life behind bars.
In a petition filed last week in Lehigh County Court, lawyers from the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia say Allentown attorney John Waldron failed to present adequate evidence about Silvonek’s background and mental health issues.
“As a result, the court was left with a blemished evidentiary record which offered an inaccurate, myopic view of Jamie as lying, manipulative and savvy beyond her years,” attorney Marsha L. Levick wrote.
Silvonek’s new lawyers are also asking Judge Maria L. Dantos to step aside during the appeal process. A hearing on the petition is set for later this month.
Waldron on Tuesday defended his representation of Silvonek, noting he called three expert witnesses at a pretrial hearing seeking to have Silvonek tried as a juvenile instead of an adult. During the two-day decertification hearing, Dantos heard from dueling mental health experts as well as some of Silvonek’s former Orefield Middle School teachers.
Waldron said he believed his best chance of getting Silvonek a shorter sentence was the decertification process, and once the judge ruled against returning the case to juvenile court, his options were limited. Prosecutors were unwilling to drop the first-degree murder charge, he wrote in a statement filed with the petition, and Dantos warned the lawyers that she would not accept a plea deal for any sentence less than 35 years.
“Bottom line, I wouldn’t have done anything differently,” Waldron said.
Jeffrey Dimmig, the chief deputy district attorney who handled the case, declined to comment Tuesday.
The killing happened in the driveway of the Silvoneks’ Randi Lane home after Cheryl Silvonek tried to persuade the couple to end their relationship due to her daughter’s young age. Barnes was a 20-year-old soldier stationed at Fort Meade when they began dating.
Witnesses at Barnes’ trial said Cheryl Silvonek drove the couple to a concert on the night of the slaying and caught them having sex in the car.
Prosecutors said Barnes stabbed Cheryl Silvonek in the neck during an argument. He and Jamie Silvonek then tried hide her body and submerge her car in a pond. They were arrested in Silvonek’s bedroom within hours of the slaying.
After Silvonek pleaded guilty, Waldron appealed Dantos’ decision to try her as an adult to the state Superior Court. In its 2017 decision, the appellate court called Silvonek’s “an extraordinary case,” but found no errors in Dantos’ ruling.
Juvenile Law Center lawyers described Silvonek’s case as “unusual and exceptional,” noting that in the past 30 years, the only defendants 14 or younger convicted in adult court for first-degree murder have been principals ― children who actually killed.
The closest case to Silvonek’s, the lawyers wrote in the petition, is the conviction of Miriam White, an 11-year-old Philadelphia girl with serious mental illness who fatally stabbed a 55-year-old woman on the street. White pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and was sentenced to 18 to 40 years in a state prison.
The attorneys wrote in the petition that Silvonek had a “substantial history of trauma,” and an undiagnosed learning disability should have been brought to the judge’s attention. In an affidavit attached to the motion, Silvonek wrote that Barnes physically abused her and threatened to kill her friends.
“The trauma both stunted her emotional development and made her acutely vulnerable to her abusive and controlling romantic relationship with [Barnes],” the lawyers wrote.
Founded in 1975, the Juvenile Law Center is the first nonprofit, public interest law firm for children in the U.S. Their work includes the 2007 “kids for cash” scandal, representing children who were sent to locked juvenile detention centers for minor offenses by two Luzerne County judges accused of accepting kickbacks from the detention center owners.
Morning Call reporter Laurie Mason Schroeder can be reached at 610-820-6506 or email@example.com