up to 10-20 years

By Carl Hessler Jr.

NORRISTOWN - The Ides of March is looming for convicted killer James Joseph Smull.

Smull will face his day of reckoning March 15 when he's sentenced for killing his ex-fiancee, Nickole Lyn Rossman.

Montgomery County Judge Maurino J. Rossanese Jr. scheduled Smull's sentencing hearing for 1:15 p.m., according to court records available Friday.

When Smull, 34, formerly of the 300 block of South Fifth Avenue, Royersford, steps into the courtroom to learn his fate, he'll be facing a maximum of 10 to 20 years in state prison because a jury convicted him of voluntary manslaughter in connection with Rossman's Oct. 12, 2001, slaying.

The jury determined Smull killed Rossman, 27, during the "heat of passion," but not with intent. Jurors, who deliberated more than 17 hours, acquitted Smull of more serious charges of first- and third-degree murder.

The jury also acquitted Smull of a weapons offense. Some courtroom spectators called that finding "illogical," given the fact the jury concluded Smull was responsible for Rossman's death.

During the two-week trial, prosecutors alleged Smull used three weapons, striking Rossman with a baseball bat, strangling her with an electrical cord and slashing her throat with a serrated kitchen knife during a jealous rage inside Rossman's house in the 800 block of Dewees Place in Trappe. Testimony revealed that each of the three weapons, used alone, could have caused Rossman's death.

Jurors who have been contacted declined to comment about their verdict.

Before the punishment is imposed, Smull will have the opportunity to address the judge. If Smull does speak in court, it will be the first time that he addresses the charges publicly. Smull did not testify during the trial and showed virtually no emotion when the guilty verdict was returned against him.

While the charge of voluntary manslaughter carries a maximum of 10 to 20 years in prison, state sentencing guidelines provide judges with a range of possible sentencing options that are based upon the gravity of the offense and a defendant's prior record.

There are three levels of recommended guideline ranges: a standard range, for use under normal circumstances; an aggravated range, for use when the judge determines there are aggravating circumstances; and a mitigated range, for use when a judge determines there are mitigating circumstances in favor of the defendant.

Assistant District Attorney Frank Genovese and defense lawyer Frank DeSimone will argue to the judge during Smull's sentencing hearing over what they believe is a just sentence.

One thing that could work against Smull is that he has a prior criminal record for assaultive behavior.

Smull, a 1988 Spring-Ford Area High School graduate, previously served prison time for the 1989 shooting of a man in Spring City during a dispute, allegedly fueled by jealousy, over a 15-year-old girl.

Court documents indicate Smull, then 20, was arrested in 1989 for shooting Royersford resident Anthony Navarro. According to court testimony, Navarro was parked in front of a girl's home on Wall Street near Chestnut Street in Spring City about 1 a.m. Oct. 15, 1989, when Smull emerged from behind some trees, opened the passenger door and grabbed the girl and threw her to the sidewalk.

Smull then knelt inside the car and pointed a handgun at Navarro, who was sitting in the driver's seat, according to trial testimony. Smull fired once, the bullet striking Navarro's upper right arm.

A Chester County Court jury convicted Smull of aggravated assault during an October 1990 trial, according to newspaper files. In December 1991, Smull was sentenced to five to 10 years in prison on the charge.

While state law prohibited jurors at last month's murder trial from hearing evidence about Smull's violent past, the judge will be able to consider Smull's past for sentencing purposes.

Throughout the latest trial, DeSimone implied investigators arrested the wrong person for Rossman's murder and that detectives botched the investigation.

However, Genovese argued all physical, scientific and circumstantial evidence pointed to Smull as the killer. Genovese maintained scientific tests showed that three droplets of blood found on Smull's shirt were the result of blood spattering while he attacked Rossman.

Genovese also presented a host of circumstantial evidence against Smull. Under state law, juries can convict someone based upon circumstantial evidence alone.

One of the most compelling pieces of circumstantial evidence, authorities alleged, was that a jacket that prosecutors proved Smull was wearing the morning of the killing has gone missing. Prosecutors theorized the jacket had blood on it that could link Smull to the murder and that Smull got rid of it.

Prosecutors alleged Smull killed Rossman, a 1992 Phoenixville Area High School graduate, after becoming enraged when she ended their engagement on Oct. 4, 2001, and he saw her with another man on Oct. 12. Prosecutors described Smull as "angry, manipulative and possessive" and alleged he was motivated by jealousy.

Smull remains in the county jail without bail while awaiting sentencing.

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