Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania

30 Years After Murder, 14 Years After Supreme Court Ruling, Pennsylvania Drops Death Penalty At Request of Victim's Family

Thirty years after the crime that sent him to Pennsylvania's death row and 15 years after his case was argued in the U.S. Supreme Court, David Sattazahn was resentenced to life without parole—the sentence he initially received in his first trial in 1991. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the victim's family all agreed that a life sentence was the best outcome at this point in the case. Sattazahn was convicted of first-degree murder and the court sentenced him to life in prison in 1991 when his Berks County sentencing jury split 9-3 in favor of a life sentence. After his life sentence, Sattazahn pled guilty to several unrelated felony charges. His murder conviction was then overturned as a result of prejudicially inaccurate jury instructions, and in his retrial, prosecutors again sought the death penalty, using his guilty pleas as a new aggravating circumstance. In 1999, he was retried and sentenced to death, becoming the first death-after-life-sentenced defendant under Pennsylvania's death penalty statute. His appeal in that trial reached the U.S. Supreme Court (argument, pictured), which ruled 5-4 in 2003 that the non-unanimous jury vote in his case did not constitute a finding rejecting the death penalty, even though it had resulted in a life sentence. As a consequence, the Court wrote, subjecting Sattazahn to a second capital prosecution did not violate the Double Jeopardy clause of the U.S. Constitution. Sattazahn's 1999 death sentence was overturned in 2006 because of ineffective assistance of counsel. Faced with the possibility of a third sentencing hearing and additional appeals, the family of murder victim Richard Boyer, Sr. agreed that dropping the death penalty in favor of life without parole would help bring them closure. “Every time we try to get on with our lives, we're back in court, reliving that night again and again. There has to be an end to this madness,” said Barbara Spatz, Boyer's sister. Senior Deputy Attorney General Anthony Forray said his office consulted with Boyer's four children and four siblings before deciding to drop the death penalty. “No family should have to go through this,” Forray said. “The commonwealth believes that what is occurring today is the appropriate thing to occur if this family is ever going to have closure and if this is ever going to come to an end.” At a May 24, 2017 hearing in Reading, Pennsylvania, the Berks County Court of Common Pleas formally resentenced Sattazahn to life.

Reform Candidate Who Opposes Death Penalty Wins Democratic Nomination for Philadelphia District Attorney

In a repudiation of the city's past history as one of the nation's leading producers of death sentences, Philadelphia has joined the trend of major national jurisdictions to select reform candidates who have pledged to limit or eliminate use of the death penalty. On May 16, primary voters in the overwhelmingly Democratic city selected long-time civil rights lawyer Lawrence Krasner (pictured) as the Democratic nominee for District Attorney. Krasner, a defense attorney who entered the public's eye representing protesters from Occupy Philadelphia and Black Lives Matter, ran on a platform of sweeping criminal justice reform, including a vow never to seek the death penalty. His campaign website states, "He knows that capital punishment is expensive, ineffective, and racially biased. Since its reinstatement by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, it has cost Pennsylvania taxpayers over $1 billion, yet no one on Pennsylvania’s death row has been put to death involuntarily since 1962. Meanwhile six people on death row have been exonerated." Because Democrats hold a 7-1 registration edge over Republicans, Krasner is considered a prohibitive favorite to defeat Republican nominee Beth Grossman, a former assistant district attorney, in November's general election. Philadelphia is among the 2% of U.S. counties responsible for 56% of the nation's death row population, and its former longtime District Attorney Lynne Abraham was named one of "America's Five Deadliest Prosecutors" for overseeing the imposition of 108 death sentences. Krasner's nomination continues a trend among voters in major cities replacing prosecutorial regimes perceived as overaggressively pursuing the death penalty. In November 2015 runoff election, voters in Caddo Parish (Shreveport), Louisiana elected their first African American District Attorney, James Stewart, after acting District Attorney Dale Cox said the state should use "kill more people" with the death penalty. Last August, in a landslide election described as reshaping the political landscape of Northeast Florida, Republican primary voters in Duval County (Jacksonville) replaced controversial State Attorney Angela Corey with reform candidate Melissa Nelson. Then, in the November general election, voters in three more counties known for their outlier practices on the death penalty—Harris County (Houston), Texas, Hillsborough County (Tampa), Florida; and Jefferson County (Birmingham), Alabama—replaced incumbents with challengers running on reform platforms. Among Krasner's other reform proposals are reviewing past convictions for accuracy and ensuring that potentially exculpatory evidence is never withheld from defendants, taking a stronger stance against police misconduct, and ending stop-and-frisk.

Two Philadelphia Detectives, Three Wrongful Capital Prosecutions

On May 13, 2017, James "Jimmy" Dennis (pictured, center, with some of his defense team) was released from prison after more than 25 years on Pennsylvania's death row. His release marked the culmination of three unrelated wrongful capital prosecutions in Philadelphia in the early-1990s, with the common thread a pattern of misconduct by the same two Philadelphia homicide detectives. Dennis, Anthony Wright, and Percy St. George were all capitally charged for murder in cases investigated by Detectives Manuel Santiago and Frank Jastrzembski. Dennis was convicted and sentenced to death, Wright was convicted and sentenced to life without parole when his death penalty jury could not agree on a sentence, and capital charges against St. George were dismissed before he went to trial. Misconduct in Wright and Dennis' trials led courts to overturn their convictions decades later. The detectives' misconduct came to light in the St. George case when one supposed eyewitness told St. George's attorneys that he had identified St. George only because "[Santiago] told me that I could get locked up, so I was scared, because I had never been locked up before." As other questionable conduct was discovered, Detectives Santiago and Jastrzembski invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and the charges against St. George were dropped. Wright was initially convicted of rape and murder based upon an unrecorded fabricated confession that Santiago purported to have taken and clothing matching those Wright supposedly had admitted to have worn during the crime. Jastrembski claimed to have found those clothes hidden under Wright’s bed. DNA testing later established that the clothes had actually been worn by the victim, not Wright, suggesting that police had fabricated the confession and planted the clothing to incriminate Wright. Jastrembski and Santiago were also implicated in misconduct in Dennis' case, suppressing evidence that Dennis was not the killer. The two detectives had been asked to follow up on a statement a county prisoner named William Frazier had given to police saying that a friend of his had confessed to committing the murder with two other men. The detectives spoke to one of the three potential suspects, who fit the description offered by another eyewitness, but contradicted the prosecution's case against Dennis. That information was withheld from Dennis' defense. Jastrembski also claimed to have seized clothes from Dennis' house that fit the description of the clothes eyewitnesses said the killer had worn, but told the state post-conviction court that the clothes had since been thrown in the trash by cleaners. Even after courts overturned Wright's and Dennis' convictions, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office continued to pursue charges against them. Even after Wright was acquitted in August 2016, a prosecution spokesperson continued to assert that "the evidence was sufficient to prove Anthony Wright participated in the murder of Louise Talley." In December 2016, facing a capital retrial, Dennis made the difficult decision to plead no contest to lesser charges. He was resentenced to time served, but his release was delayed as he awaited parole on unrelated charges. The Innocence Project and a Philadelphia civil rights law firm have filed a lawsuit against the city and 11 police officers, including Detectives Santiago and Jastrzembski, alleging a pervasive pattern of unconstitutional misconduct, including in the cases of Wright, Dennis, and St. George.

BOOKS: "The Trials of Walter Ogrod" Chronicles Pennsylvania Possible Innocence Case

Walter Ogrod was convicted and sentenced to death in Philadelphia in 1996 for the 1988 murder of a 4-year-old girl, whose body was found in a discarded television box. Ogrod, who is developmentally disabled, has long maintained his innocence, but despite significant irregularities in the case and amidst allegations of official misconduct, local prosecutors have fought efforts to obtain DNA testing of the physical evidence and to investigate the role a discredited prison informant played in implicating Ogrod. A new book, "The Trials of Walter Ogrod," by Tom Lowenstein chronicles the crime, the trial, and the failures of the criminal justice system in Ogrod's case. The book tells how a Philadelphia homicide detective interrogated the intellectually limited Ogrod for more than 14 hours before Ogrod signed a 16-page confession that was written by the detective and that was filled with emotionally-laden language Ogrod—with an autism spectrum disorder—would not have used. Ogrod's court proceedings have been controversial from the outset. The jury in Ogrod's 1993 trial voted to acquit, but as the verdict was being read, one juror called out that he had changed his mind, causing a mistrial. Before the second trial, Ogrod was placed with a prison cellmate named John Hall, a snitch so notorious for producing confessions that he was nicknamed "The Monsignor." Hall claimed that Ogrod had confessed to him, giving a story that was completely different from the written confession extracted by detectives and used in the first trial. Hall also introduced Ogrod to a second informant, who received leniency in his own case after claiming Ogrod had made a confession similar to the story Hall had reported. Ogrod did not match witness descriptions of the likely perpetrator and no physical evidence linked him to the crime, but a jury convicted him in a retrial in 1996 based upon the informant testimony. A year later, Hall was discredited after being caught fabricating a confession in another high profile Philadelphia murder case. Ogrod's lawyers have sought DNA testing of fingernail scrapings taken from the victim, but prosecutors and courts have blocked their efforts. Philadelphia is in the midst of a campaign for District Attorney, and Lowenstein believes the next person elected to that office should take another look at Ogrod's case and several others like it, in which prosecutors used jailhouse snitches and high-pressure interrogations to obtain convictions. "What I would like to see is the next DA in Philadelphia do a thorough review of death-penalty and life-imprisonment cases from the 1990s," he said. "There was a systemic problem with how that DA’s office was prosecuting people."

Federal Appeals Court Bars Automatic Solitary Confinement for Former Death Row Prisoners

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on February 9 declared unconstitutional Pennsylvania's long-standing practice of automatically keeping capital defendants in solitary confinement after courts had overturned their death sentences. Saying that, “Scientific research and evolving jurisprudence has made the harms of solitary confinement clear,” the unanimous three-judge panel ruled that prisoners whose death sentences have been overturned have a constitutionally protected interest against being held in solitary confinement, unless the state could show, after an individualized assessment, that such custody was necessary for security and safety reasons. Shawn Walker and Craig Williams, the former death row prisoners who brought the suit, had spent 14 and 22 years, respectively, in solitary confinement on death row before courts vacated their death sentences. Then each was kept on death row without a death sentence for the six additional years it took to conduct the resentencing proceedings in their cases. In barring continued treatment of inmates like Walker and Williams as death-row prisoners without any demonstrated security need to do so, former Chief Circuit Judge Theodore McKee warned that "Inmates in solitary confinement on death row without active death sentences face the perils of extreme isolation and are at risk of erroneous deprivation of their liberty. Accordingly, they have a clearly established due process right under the Fourteenth Amendment to avoid unnecessary and unexamined solitary confinement on death row." According to a July 2015 DPIC analysis of Pennsylvania death row, 115 former death-row prisoners whose convictions or death sentences had been overturned in post-conviction proceedings had been resentenced to life or less, or acquitted. Most had been kept in death-row solitary confinement without active death sentences before being resentenced or exonerated.

First-Degree Murder Charges Dropped Against Two Former Pennsylvania Death Row Prisoners With Innocence Claims

On December 22, Pennsylvania prosecutors dropped first-degree murder charges against two former Pennsylvania death row prisoners who have asserted their innocence for decades. In courtrooms 100 miles apart, Tyrone Moore and James Dennis entered no-contest pleas to charges of third-degree murder, avoiding retrials on the charges that had initially sent the men to death row and paving the way for their release. A Luzerne County judge sentenced Moore to 20 years and released him from prison for time served following his no contest plea. He had already served 34 years, 22 of them on death row for a murder during the course of a robbery at a veterinary office. A federal judge had granted Moore a new trial after he presented evidence of ineffective assistance of counsel, including his lawyer's failure to interview a co-defendant who testified in his own trial that Moore was not present at or involved in the robbery or killing. Before entering the plea, Moore reiterated that he is "wholeheartedly innocent" of the crime, and told the court, "I want to be home with my family." The victim's family supported the plea deal. In the second case, Dennis had spent 25 years on death row for the robbery and murder of a woman at a transportation terminal in Philadelphia. A federal judge overturned his conviction in 2013 as a result of multiple instances of prosecutorial misconduct, including suppressing evidence pointing to an alternate suspect who was a high school classmate of the victim and other evidence supporting Dennis' alibi. The court called the conviction "a grave miscarriage of justice," saying that Dennis had been convicted and sentenced to death "for a crime in all probability he did not commit." His attorney, Karl Schwartz, told the court, "James Dennis entered a no-contest plea, not a guilty plea, because he maintains the same position that he has maintained for 25 years: that he is innocent of this crime. He and his family have made this incredibly difficult decision based on his and their strong desire to have him home and free, [in] lieu of potentially years of continuing litigation." Dennis faces parole for an unrelated robbery conviction before he can be released.

Roger King, Former Philadelphia Prosecutor Who Once Held Record For Most Death Penalty Convictions, Dies

Roger King, a former prosecutor in Philadelphia who at one point was responsible for 20% of all the death sentences imposed in Pennsylvania, died of kidney cancer on August 24. When King retired in 2008, he held the record for most death sentences obtained by a single Pennsylvania prosecutor. None of the men he sent to death row has ever been executed. While King's aggressive pursuit of death sentences contributed to his "larger than life" reputation, it also involved charges of misconduct that included the pursuit of the death penalty against at least seven men who may have been innocent. William Nieves was prosecuted by King in 1994 and convicted based upon questionable eyewitness testimony. He was exonerated from death row in 2000 after his new attorney presented evidence that his first jury never heard that an eyewitness had originally identified the perpetrator as a short black man, not the tall, light-skinned Nieves. King also withheld exculpatory evidence in the trial of James Dennis (pictured) who was granted a new trial on August 23. The Pennsylvania federal appeals court found that King had suppressed "a receipt corroborating Dennis' alibi, an inconsistent statement by the Commonwealth's key eyewitness, and documents indicating that another individual committed the murder," which, the court said, "effectively gutted" the prosecution's case. A Philadelphia judge overturned the 1993 conviction of a third death row prisoner prosecuted by King, Frederick Thomas, who—as with Nieves and Dennis—were convicted on shaky eyewitness testimony and without any physical evidence against them. Before Thomas was granted a new trial in 2002, the state's two eyewitnesses recanted their testimony and police officer James Ryan—whom the defense said had framed Thomas—was convicted on corruption charges arising out of his conduct in other cases, including falsifying police reports and making false arrests. King also prosecuted four innocent men in Philadelphia's "Lex Street Massacre," the worst mass murder in Philadelphia history. No physical evidence linked any of the men to the killings, but King proceeded with one questionable witness and the coerced confession of one of the defendants. After 18 months in prison without being tried, the court dismissed all charges against the men. The four sued for their wrongful incarceration and obtained a $1.9 million settlement from the city. 

Pennsylvania Death Row Inmate Granted New Trial on Innocence-Related Claims; Capitally-Charged Inmate Exonerated

Two Philadelphia, Pennsylvania capital cases involving men who have long asserted their innocence reached major milestones on August 23, with one winning an appeal granting him a new trial and a jury acquitting a second in his retrial. Both cases involved allegations of serious police and prosecutorial misconduct. James Dennis (pictured), who has been on the Commonwealth's death row for nearly 25 years, was granted a new trial by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit after prosecutors withheld evidence that supported his claims of innocence. Anthony Wright, who was capitally tried but received a sentence of life without parole when the jury split 7 for death, 5 for life on the penalty verdict, was exonerated after 25 years. Dennis was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of a 17-year-old in Philadelphia. The full federal appeals court voted 9-4 on Tuesday to uphold a district court ruling granting Dennis a new trial, reversing an earlier decision by a three-judge appellate panel. Writing for the majority, Judge Marjorie O. Rendell said, "Evidence suppressed by the prosecution—a receipt corroborating Dennis' alibi, an inconsistent statement by the Commonwealth's key eyewitness, and documents indicating that another individual committed the murder—effectively gutted the Commonwealth's case against Dennis. The withholding of these pieces of evidence denied Dennis a fair trial in state court." On the same day, a jury acquitted Anthony Wright in a retrial for another 1991 Philadelphia murder. Prosecutors had initially sought the death penalty when Wright was convicted in1993, but did not pursue the death penalty after agreeing that DNA evidence entitled Wright to a new trial. DNA testing of semen found at the crime scene excluded Wright and identified another perpetrator who recently died in prison in South Carolina. Wright's attorneys say police pressured him into signing a confession and falsely claimed that a set of bloody clothes they reportedly "found" in Wright's bedroom in his mother's house belonged to Wright, when in fact they belonged to the victim and contained DNA from the actual killer. Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, said "DNA testing proved not only that Mr. Wright is absolutely innocent but also that law enforcement fabricated evidence against him." Grace Greco, the jury forewoman for Wright's retrial, said, "I'm angry. The evidence was there that he did not commit this crime. The city should never have brought this case. I'm just happy that today's verdict will let Tony move on with the rest of his life."

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