[Deathpenalty]death penalty news----N.C., GA., USA, PENN.
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Sun Nov 13 23:16:33 CST 2005
Bearing witness to the end----Feelings forged in a grieving father's
effort to forgive one killer fuel a friendship with another
20 years ago, Tom Fewel's 8-year-old daughter was abducted on the way to
her Chapel Hill school. A professor found her hanged from a tree at a
nearby biological reserve.
Ten years later, still struggling with his loss, Fewel of Chapel Hill
began corresponding with Steven Van McHone, imprisoned on North Carolina's
death row for killing his mother and stepfather. Fewel says McHone helped
him move closer to forgiving his daughter's killer, and so he worked to
try to save McHone's life.
Despite pleas by Fewel and others, Gov. Mike Easley refused last week to
commute McHone's sentence to life in prison without parole. Several
relatives said they lived in fear of McHone even with him behind bars and
wanted his sentence carried out.
At 2 a.m. Friday, McHone, 35, was executed. At McHone's request, Fewel
witnessed his death by lethal injection.
Now, Fewel is mourning a killer who helped him better understand
"I know something about grief," Fewel, 59, said Friday afternoon. "I know
I will deal with this better as time goes on. But right now, I'm just very
The death of Jean Kar-Har Fewel on a January day in 1985 shocked Chapel
Hill. Parents who had normally let their sons and daughters walk alone to
school started going with them. Jean, an orphan from Hong Kong, had lived
with Fewel and his wife, Joy Wood, for about a year, and the couple was in
the process of adopting her. Her death left them bereft.
Fewel and his wife oppose the death penalty and had asked the jury to
spare the life of George Richard Fisher for the attempted rape, kidnapping
and murder of their daughter. Fisher, 56, is serving a life sentence.
"Even though Joy and I did not want Jean's killer to receive the death
penalty, that doesn't mean I had forgiven him," Fewel said in an interview
early last week.
In 1995, Fewel's need to forgive Jean's killer led him to reach out to
He had heard a fellow member of Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church in
Chapel Hill discuss her experience visiting and writing to a death row
inmate. After the talk, People of Faith Against the Death Penalty had
letters from inmates seeking pen pals.
Fewel and McHone were unlikely pen pals, let alone friends.
McHone had been sentenced to death for the 1990 shooting of his mother,
Mildred Adams, and stepfather, Wesley Adams Sr., in Surry County.
Fewel was seeking insight into two issues: his inability to forgive
Fisher, which he felt was separating him from God, and a sense of
powerlessness to stop the death penalty.
Fewel remembers that McHone's letter was well-written; his penmanship
good. And so Fewel began to write to McHone. Within a few months, Fewel
was visiting McHone. They would talk about the murders, the grief,
forgiveness. They also talked about art, books and Carolina basketball.
"He is a very personable guy," Fewel said Friday afternoon. He then
paused, catching himself. "I'm still talking about him in the present
Art of making friends
In the course of their friendship, McHone gave Fewel three pieces of his
artwork, a watercolor and 2 drawings. Fewel featured the art in a brochure
that he handed out about McHone's clemency petition. The pieces are framed
and displayed in Fewel's Chapel Hill home.
"I wanted people to see that and know something else about him," Fewel
Fewel also wants people to know that McHone's defense lawyer, who did
little investigation before trial, was later disbarred for wrongdoing in
an unrelated case. The prosecutor, who withheld from the defense attorneys
witness statements and a 911 tape, later resigned to avoid unrelated
criminal charges, Fewel said. Fewel said McHone was too drunk to form the
intent to kill that is a requirement for a 1st-degree murder conviction.
Prosecutors say McHone received a fair trial. He confessed to the
killings, threatened to kill other relatives and was sober enough to find
weapons, reload them and hit his targets.
Fewel said he saw McHone's remorse deepen and his acceptance of
responsibility grow over the years. When they started meeting, Fewel said
McHone would say, "When my crime was committed."
That eventually changed to, "When I killed my parents."
Watching that progression helped Fewel better understand forgiveness,
which for him means to release his anger and hate over his daughter's
In a letter Oct. 27 to Easley, Fewel wrote, "Through our conversations,
I've learned lessons about grief and guilt that I can apply to how I deal
with Jean's murder. I have come to believe that forgiveness may be as
simple, and as difficult, as praying that the peace of God will be with
Fewel is now able to pray that Fisher finds God's peace. He is not done
with struggling to forgive Fisher.
"I'm still not sure I'm through with that issue in my life," Fewel said.
"But I've come a long way, and Steve has helped me."
(source: News & Observer)
Dad killed Mom, but they can't picture him gone
Sarah holds the bag close so the memories won't fall out.
It's a plain black tote bag but on the outside are clear plastic sleeves.
Room for 5 photos.
The top row has one of Sarah's husband, and one of them dancing at their
wedding, and an ultrasound of the baby she's due to deliver in April.
The bottom left has a photo of Sarah with her siblings -- John, Janet and
The last photo shows their parents. Teresa and Elias Syriani. A smiling
That picture was taken a long time ago.
In 1990, Elias killed Teresa. He blocked her car in the street near her
Charlotte home and he stabbed her 28 times with a screwdriver.
In 1991, he was sentenced to death. On Friday, he is due to be executed.
For years the children hated him. They burned with fury when people said
But now they are trying to save their father's life. And they know people
are wondering why.
Why have they traveled the state, pleading for support, weeping in front
Why did they shake off their nerves and go on "Good Morning America" and
"Larry King Live"?
Why are they begging Gov. Mike Easley to spare the man who killed their
Why are they doing this to themselves?
They don't have the words.
But they do have pictures.
Memories in soft focus
"I can see these things in my head, so vividly," Sarah says, and the other
kids nod, they can see them, too.They remember this: Elias Syriani worked
at a machine shop. He would come home with steel shavings in his hair. He
would sit in his chair and corral the kids in his arms and they would pick
the shavings out.
They remember this: Some nights he would give the kids tweezers and they
would pluck the hair from his ears. He would squeal, acting like they were
hurting him, and the kids would lose their breath laughing.
Janet remembers her dad coming to school to have lunch with her. John
remembers staying up all night with his dad so they could put together
Janet's pink bike.
This was the life they had. Their father was a part of it.
On Wednesday, when they visited him at Central Prison, he reminded them of
the time they took a vacation to Myrtle Beach.
Rose had a dog named Cookie and she wouldn't leave without it. But when
they got there they couldn't find a hotel that took pets. They went to a
campground but the dog started barking and other campers complained. So
their dad took the dog to the beach at 4 in the morning so everybody else
"I had forgotten how much I loved that dog," Rose says. "That was my
childhood. That was a piece of me."
They have even more stories about their mom. How she used to wait with
Rose every day at the school bus stop. How she chased down Janet's bus one
morning because Janet forgot the potato chips with her lunch.
These days, sometimes Sarah has a dream. All 4 kids are at home, sitting
at the kitchen table. Their dad is sitting with them.
Their mom is in the kitchen making dinner.
"We're looking around the table at each other," Sarah says. "She's not
supposed to be here. She's dead. But we don't say anything. Because we
don't want her to go away."
These pictures belong in the album, too. Nobody wants them there but they
are glued to the pages.
Elias Syriani beat his wife. Police were called to the house 10 times in
two years. Teresa told neighbors that Elias hit her with a table leg. Once
he went after her with a baseball bat.
She got a restraining order and he was forced to leave their southwest
Charlotte home. She filed for divorce.
On a summer night in 1990 she drove home from her job at a
convenience-store deli. John was with her. He was 10.
A block from home, Elias blocked her car with his van. He took the
screwdriver in his hand and reached in through her door.
The car shook.
John tried to push his father away. Then he ran home and told Rose to call
Witnesses said Elias attacked Teresa, went back to his van, then started
walking back toward the car. He left only when he saw a neighbor heading
Teresa died after 26 days in a coma.
By then the kids were living with their aunts. And Sarah was cutting her
father's face out of the family photos.
Raising and lifting each other
Look at this picture, just a few days ago, the kids in their Raleigh hotel
room -- joking, finishing one another's stories, arguing about who's the
best Ping-Pong player.Their aunts raised them, but just as much, they
raised one another. Janet remembers winning a school award in eighth grade
and needing to bring a parent for dinner with the principal. She went to
her oldest sister and said: Rose, you've got to be my mama tonight.
Janet's 23 now and studies accounting. John's 25 and sells Hondas at a car
dealership outside Chicago. Sarah's 27 and lives with her husband near San
Francisco. Rose, who's 29, just got a job doing consumer research in the
same part of the country; she's moving in with Sarah until she finds a
place of her own.
They try to explain how they came to forgive their father for what
happened 15 years ago. They say it's a miracle. They say it's their mother
watching over them, telling them it's OK.
Every so often they just shrug. They don't have the words.
It happened so fast last summer. The 4 of them decided to visit their
father together. Sarah was about to get married and wanted to see if she
could cleanse her heart. Rose wanted to show her father how far she had
made it without him.
They had read a report prepared for his court appeals. It told them things
they had never known. It told how Elias had grown up poor near Jerusalem,
how his father had been sent to prison and exiled to Jordan, how the
family was torn up with anger and guilt.
They felt sorry for him. They did not yet forgive.
But they got to the prison and he smiled at them behind the glass and
their hate fell away.
"I don't quite know how to say this," Rose says. "None of this justifies
what he did. There is no way to justify it.
"But now we're able to pick up these wonderful pieces of our lives, these
things we had put away. It's not our fault any of this happened. We just
have to find out a way to live.
"Our mom and dad did love each other. And the love they had together -- "
Sarah breaks in: " -- created us."
"Yes. Created us."
A talk with the governor
There's no chance that Elias Syriani will be freed. His best hope is life
without parole. Clemency from the governor is his main chance at escaping
execution. North Carolina has no clemency board; Gov. Easley makes the
decision on his own.
The hearing was Thursday at the Capitol. Normally, Easley focuses on the
legal arguments in the case. So the Syriani kids weren't scheduled to talk
with him; instead they had a meeting with his chief legal counsel, Reuben
The kids showed up early, just in case.
The hearings are closed to the public. Mecklenburg County and state
prosecutors spoke to Easley first. (They wouldn't comment on what they
said in the hearing.)
Henderson Hill, Elias Syriani's lawyer, went next. He said he made the
case he has made through years of appeals: that the jury didn't get to
hear about the hard life Syriani had growing up, or about possible
evidence of mental illness.
As Easley listened to the legal arguments in his office, the kids spoke to
Young in a room on the other side of the hallway. They finished. They
waited. Then they were asked to come across the hall.
The governor showed them pictures of his children.
Rose and Sarah did most of the talking. They told the governor that they
lost the most when their mother died. But now they have their father back,
and they have the most to lose again.
Easley usually waits until the final hours to decide on clemency. Since he
took office, he has stopped executions twice. Twenty-one times he has let
Later Thursday, about 12 hours after he spoke to the kids, Easley denied
clemency in the case of Steven Van McHone.
McHone died by lethal injection Friday morning.
There is a videotape of John and Janet's christening. The images on the
screen are the only moving pictures the family has left.
The kids tried to watch 10 years ago but they couldn't take it. Then the
tape went into evidence at their father's trial. Finally, 2 weeks ago,
The tape shows a party that the Syrianis had in their yard. Dozens of
people came. Elias -- who sang on the radio back in Jordan -- is singing
in Arabic: This life that I'm living is a beautiful life.
Teresa comes up and wraps her arms around him, runs her fingers through
his hair, wipes the sweat from his face.
All around them, children dance.
For years the Syriani children cut their father out. Now, at the end, he
is back in the picture.
They don't know if you can understand. Sometimes they don't understand.
But this is what they have. Memories, an old blurry tape, some photos on
the side of a bag.
You take the snapshots, and you arrange them a certain way.
And out of that you try to make a life.
(source: Charlotte Observer)
A matter of life and death----Holdouts frustrate other jurors
10 hands rose for the death sentence. 2 did not.
The jurors stared at one another in stunned silence.
The discussion turned to trying to change the minds of the 2 "no" votes.
But after a short debate, no one in the jury room would budge. They argued
for less than an hour, just a fraction of the time it took them to
methodically decide the day before that Wesley Harris was guilty of a
brutal double murder.
The jurors were even more stunned when they realized that Georgia law
dictated that their split decision guaranteed a life sentence without the
possibility of parole for Harris.
They had no doubt that Harris killed Whitney Land and her 2-year-old
daughter, Jordan. The victims were abducted, shot, and placed in obscene
angles in the trunk of a car that was then set afire. Just one look at the
crime scene photos, the soot on the skin, the five bullet holes, brought
tears to the eyes of some jurors. The horrible pictures of the lifeless
bodies of the 22-year-old woman and her baby daughter pushed most of the
jury to vote for a death sentence.
Days after the Tuesday verdict, some of the jurors said they were still
angry about the outcome and were still wrestling with unanswered
If Wesley Harris, a baby killer, did not deserve the death penalty, who
does? Why couldn't they get a death sentence in this case?
That Gwinnett jury is not alone in asking questions about the death
penalty. District attorneys across the nation are finding themselves in
the same quandary as it is becoming harder and harder to get convicted
killers sentenced to death.
According to local statistics and the national Death Penalty Information
Center, based in Washington, there has been a steady decline in death
sentences in Georgia and around the country. In 2003, according to the
center, Georgia sentenced only 1 person to lethal injection. Nationally,
144 people were sentenced to death in 2003.
That number has dropped consistently since 1998, when 300 people were
sentenced to death across America.
Mike Mears, director of the Atlanta-based Multi-County Public Defender
Office, credits highly publicized cases of innocent people languishing for
years on death row before being released for making people more skeptical
of the justice system. He said 121 people have been released from death
row in the last three decades after being proven innocent, many because of
"There are too many mistakes being made," he said. "We've had over 100
But those facts are no consolation to many of the jurors in the Harris
case who feel that the sentence was wrong.
"From the moment I saw the pictures of that baby, there was no saving
him," said juror Denise Schnieders, a grade school teacher. "I knew what
had to happen to a monster who would do that. I have two little girls.
"We're angry that the system didn't work and frustrated that we didn't see
the outcome we thought we should have seen," she said.
"Justice wasn't done."
The case against Harris seemed like a slam-dunk guilty verdict and a
can't-miss death penalty to some.
Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter, a veteran who has overseen close
to 20 death- penalty cases, said the Harris case was the strongest case
for the death penalty he had ever tried.
Harris, a 27-year-old Jonesboro fast-food worker, carjacked his victims
from a Clayton County park on Nov. 8, 1999. He drove them to Gwinnett
County and shot them at point-blank range.
During the two-week trial, prosecutors showed jurors a videotape in which
Harris admitted burning Whitney Land's car. Prosecutors also presented
cellphone records that showed Harris used Land's phone to call a friend
after she was dead.
That friend testified that he helped Harris burn the car and helped him
ditch the murder weapon. The jury also was shown an autopsy that said
Harris placed his pistol right against the face of the child, shooting her
execution-style as she sat in her car seat.
The jury found Harris guilty on all counts after 10 hours of
deliberations. But jurors said they could have made a decision on guilt in
"I could've did it in 5 minutes," said Michelle Bailey of Sugar Hill. "It
was obvious he was guilty, but we took 2 days to go over the evidence just
to make sure."
But the vote for punishment came after only an hour of deliberation and it
was much more controversial. Most of the jurors interviewed for this
article said they were surprised that there was not a unanimous vote for
death. The 2 jurors who didn't vote for death declined to be interviewed.
The group in the jury room had become a close-knit bunch over the 13 days
of trial and most now still consider the holdouts friends. Jurors said
they tried in many ways to convince the two jurors to change their minds,
but there was no yelling.
"It wasn't persuasion with a baseball bat," said John Coch-ran, jury
foreman. "It was persuasion with a chopstick."
Jurors asked the holdouts how they would feel if their family member were
the victim of the crime. Michael W. Trippe said he reminded the holdouts
of the crime scene photos, especially the one that showed the child's
But the 2 jurors would not change their minds.
The other jurors said they do not really know why the two holdouts did not
vote for death, that they gave no reason other than they just couldn't do
Some said they believe it may have been religious convictions.
One juror suggested race influenced the decision of the holdouts, but
other jurors disagreed. The jury did split along racial lines: 10 white
jurors voted for death and a black juror and an Asian juror voted against
But in the end, jurors said, they may never know why they deadlocked. And
that fact adds to their frustration.
"I really feel like our verdict was stolen from us," said Bailey, a
30-year-old bartender. "We feel robbed by 2 people for reasons that were
not really voiced."
Porter, the district attorney, said he was very disappointed by the
decision. But he conceded it is very difficult to get a death penalty
sentence. In his 25-year career as DA, Porter said he has gotten death
sentences in 5 of the 10 death-penalty cases he has taken to juries.
This experience has pushed some of the jurors to ask for a change in
Georgia law so that criminals can be sentenced to death by a supermajority
of the 12-person jury.
"I could easily become an advocate for changing the law from unanimous to
majority," Trippe said. "I wouldn't know how to spearhead something like
that, but I would certainly be willing to support that."
Mears said what the frustrated jurors don't understand is that the system
did work. The law requires a unaminous verdict for the finding of guilt.
It should require no less to put someone to death, he said.
To Mears, the Wesley Harris case is an argument for doing away with the
"The death penalty should not be used at all because it is not being
proportionately handed out for similar crimes," said Mears, who defends
indigent death-penalty clients around the state. "You have people on death
row who panic during a 7-11 robbery and shoot a clerk and they get the
death penalty, and then Wesley Harris gets life without parole. That's not
While Porter has voiced some strong public opinions about the jury's
decision, he also said the Harris verdict was not an indictment of
Georgia's legal system.
"When you remove yourself from the emotion of this case it just shows that
the death penalty is hard to get," Porter said. "And that is how it should
be. The death penalty is the ultimate punishment and it should be hard to
(source : Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
U.S. Department of Justice: Number of Death Row Inmates Declined for
Fourth Year During 2004
There were 3,315 state and federal death row inmates on December 31, 2004,
-- 63 fewer than on the same date in 2003, the Department of Justice's
Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today. The 2004 decline
represents the 4th year in which the number of prisoners under death
sentences decreased -- 3,601 were on death row at the end of 2000; 3,577
at the end of 2001; 3,562 in 2002 and 3,378 at the end of 2003.
During 2004, 125 inmates entered prison with death sentences, which was
the lowest number since 44 were admitted in 1973. This was the 2nd year in
which death row admissions dropped -- 169 were admitted in 2002 and 152 in
Among the 38 states with capital punishment laws as of December 2004,
California held the most death row inmates (637), followed by Texas (446),
Florida (364) and Pennsylvania (222). The federal Bureau of Prisons held
33 inmates. 12 states and the District of Columbia do not authorize
During 2004, 12 states executed 59 prisoners, six fewer than in 2003. The
inmates executed had been under a death sentence for an average of 11
years, which was one month longer than the period for inmates executed in
2003. The new BJS report also noted that:
All 59 persons executed during 2004 were men. 39 were white (3 of whom
were Hispanic), 19 were black and 1 was Asian. 58 were given lethal
injection and 1 was electrocuted.
During 2004, Texas executed 23 inmates; Ohio 7; Oklahoma 6; Virginia 5;
North and South Carolina 4 each; Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Nevada 2
each and Arkansas and Maryland 1 each.
Of those awaiting execution on December 31, 2004, 56 % were white, 42 %
black, and 2 % of other races.
The 367 Hispanic inmates under sentence of death were 13 % of all
prisoners for whom the ethnicity was known.
52 women were under a death sentence at the end of 2004, 5 more than the
Preliminary data for 2005 show that 13 states executed 49 inmates from
January 1 through November 9; all were given lethal injections. Texas
executed 17, followed by Indiana and Missouri with 5, and Alabama and
Oklahoma with 4 each.
>From January 1, 1977, through December 31, 2004, 32 states and the federal
government executed 944 prisoners.
Of the 7,187 people under sentence of death between 1977 and 2004, 13 %
had been executed, 4 % died by causes other than execution, 37 % were
removed from death row for various reasons and 46 percent were still on
death row as of last December 31.
At the end of 2004, 14 states had laws that specified a minimum age of
less than 18 years old for which a death sentence could be imposed. 6
states had no minimum age. Among inmates with death sentences for whom
their arrest age data was available, 63 were 17 years old or younger when
they were arrested for their capital offense.
Four states revised statutory provisions relating to the death penalty
during 2004. One state revised its statute to exclude mentally retarded
persons from capital sentencing. 1 states enacted laws increasing the age
of eligibility for a death sentence to 18 years at the time the murder was
committed. One state repealed the use of the firing squad for all persons
sentenced to death on or after May 3, 2004.
The report, "Capital Punishment, 2004" (NCJ-211349), was written by BJS
statisticians Thomas P. Bonczar and Tracy L. Snell. Following publication
this document can be accessed at:
For additional information about the Bureau of Justice Statistics
statistical reports programs, please visit the BJS website at:
OJP provides federal leadership in developing the nation's capacity to
prevent and control crime, administer justice, and assist crime victims.
OJP is headed by an Assistant Attorney General and comprises five
component bureaus and two offices: the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the
Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and the Office for
Victims of Crime, as well as the Office of the Police Corps and Law
Enforcement Education, and the Community Capacity Development Office,
which incorporates the Weed and Seed program and OJP's American Indian and
Alaska Native Affairs Desk. More information can be found at
(source: US Newswire)
Patriot Act stealth----The anti-terrorism statute may be used as a vehicle
to rewrite death penalty laws
Much of the criticism of the USA Patriot Act has focused on the threat to
basic liberties. That threat is still there, and it should be taken
seriously by the congressional conference committee that will soon decide
whether to renew the act in its present form, or strengthen or revise it.
But the House has now added another reason to oppose a blanket renewal of
this legislation: It would vastly expand the way the federal death penalty
is applied in all capital cases.
Under the proposed House language, a unanimous jury verdict would no
longer be required to impose capital punishment. Instead, a new jury could
be impaneled by the prosecutor. That would end the current practice of
requiring a life sentence whenever a jury is deadlocked on a death
sentence. Yet another change would allow a court to order a trial with
fewer than 12 jurors, even if the defense objected.
The proposed changes also would allow a capital verdict in terrorism cases
even if there was no evidence that the defendant intended to kill anyone.
As the group Human Rights Watch points out, a person could "be sentenced
to death for providing financial support to an organization whose members
caused the death of another, even if this individual did not know or in
any way intend that the members engage in acts of violence."
Incredibly, these provisions were approved by the House in a floor vote
last summer, but are only now gaining wide attention as the conference
committee begins its debate on extending the Patriot Act. The vote was
overwhelming, according to House Judiciary Committee Chairman James
That will leave it up to the Senate to act responsibly, as it did last
year when it excised similar provisions that had been included in a House
intelligence reform bill. Then as now the sponsor was Rep. John Carter,
R-Texas, who believes in the death penalty as a deterrent to crime.
The Patriot Act was passed in the days following the terror attacks of
Sept. 11, 2001, and reflected the high anxiety of that moment. But in the
years since, it has become clear that some of the act's provisions, such
as enhanced government powers of surveillance, were an overreaction. It's
bad enough that these provisions may be extended by the conference
committee. But imagine if the Patriot Act were to become a Trojan horse
for sweeping changes in the way the death penalty is applied. That's
(source: Opinion, Albany Times Union)
The Death Penalty Is a Deterrent
In her Nov. 5 letter, Anne V. Hamilton said, "States that execute the most
suffer the highest numbers of murders." Per capita, that is not true.
According to the Web site of the Death Penalty Information Center, which
Ms. Hamilton cited, Texas, which has executed 353 criminals since 1976
(more than any other state), had a murder rate in 2004 of 6.1 per 100,000.
Michigan, which has had no death penalty since 1847, had 6.4 per 100,000.
Locally, Virginia, 2nd to Texas in executions with 94 since 1976, had a
murder rate of 5.2 per 100,000; Maryland, with only 4 executions in that
time, had a rate of 9.4. The District, which has had no death penalty
since 1972, had a rate of 35.8.
Certainly, many factors affect crime rates, including quality of
education, economic opportunities and law enforcement diligence. But to
argue that the death penalty is not generally a deterrent ignores one of
the strongest of all human instincts, self-preservation. As Ms. Hamilton
says, the death penalty won't deter every suicidal terrorist. But most
would-be murderers do not want to die.
JOSEPH L. WHITNEY----Catlett, Va.
(source: Letter to the Editor, Washington Post)
Waiting for judgment: How a death penalty case is determined
Over the past few weeks, prosecutors in Northampton County have taken
preliminary steps to seek the death penalty against 2 teenagers and may
seek it again this month for a 20-year-old man.
Those decisions came at the end of a long and complicated process during
which Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli considered a
series of "aggravating factors" laid out under state law.
On Nov. 3, Morganelli informed 19-year-old Omar Chaparro that he might
seek the death penalty against him in the murder of 50-year-old Bethlehem
grocer Concepcion Martinez. The next day Morganelli said he would likely
seek the death penalty against Chaparro's alleged accomplice, Matthew G.
Jenkins, 20, of East Allen Township.
Law enforcement officials say Chaparro and Jenkins entered Martinez's
store in the 600 block of Broadway in August with the intention of
stealing money and cigarettes. Instead of going ahead with the robbery,
Jenkins panicked and shot Martinez when he charged at him, according to
Killing a person while committing another felony is one in that list of 18
aggravating factors prosecutors have to choose from when seeking the death
In the case of 18-year-old Michael Staton, Morganelli's office also
reserved the right to seek the death penalty because Staton allegedly
opened fire on a crowded porch. That action would put the crime under
number seven of aggravating factors for a defendant who "knowingly created
a grave risk of death to another person in addition to the victim of the
Ultimately, Staton's shots struck and killed 17-year-old Roy Jenkins as he
stood on a porch in the 1000 block of Northampton Street in July, police
Still, Morganelli said when he considers whether to seek the death
penalty, ruling on cases similar to the one involving Staton are among the
toughest to call.
"Trying to prove that someone is in harm's way that's not an easy one,"
Another aggravating factor that Morganelli said he struggles with, is
seeking the death penalty when a murder can be linked to a crime involving
In 2 other pending cases Morganelli has also left open the death penalty
Kathy MacClellan, a 70-year-old Moore Township woman charged with killing
her 84-year-old neighbor Marguerite Eyer with a hammer. In that case the
prolonged nature of the attack on Feb. 7 would be classified as torture,
an aggravating circumstance as is MacClellan's alleged robbery of the
Morganelli also filed notice earlier this year of aggravating
circumstances surrounding a potential death penalty prosecution of
Bethlehem resident Sonnie Thomas. Thomas is alleged to have killed Carlos
Garcia with a samurai sword during the course of a robbery on Jan 21.
Thomas also allegedly set the body on fire.
Of course, just because a defendant gets a notice that prosecutors will
seek the death penalty doesn't always mean they will. In many cases the
prosecutors may be using a death penalty threat to leverage a guilty plea
with jail time from a defendant.
"In our history, our office doesn't always seek the death penalty,"
Morganelli said. "We feel that it is a favorable condition if they plead
guilty and get life with no possibility of parole."
But even those deals can backfire. Earlier this month, convicted murderer
Russell Buskirk, 55, won the right to ask the state Supreme Court whether
he is entitled to have a death penalty hearing, claiming he was unaware of
the burden of proof on the state before the death penalty phase of his
Buskirk was found guilty in November 2001 of fatally shooting his friend
Anthony Danubio during a drug deal and robbery in June 2000.
"It was a very difficult case," Morganelli said of the Buskirk trial. "It
wasn't the strongest death penalty case."
Instead of asking for death, the state withdrew its request for the death
penalty and Buskirk in return forfeited all his rights to appeal. But
Buskirk later claimed he misunderstood the process and appealed in county
court. When that was rejected, Buskirk appealed to Superior Court, which
agreed that Buskirk was entitled to a death penalty hearing.
New Jersey law also codifies the circumstances under which a murder is
committed that qualify the defendant for the death penalty. In a separate
trial phase after a conviction or guilty plea, a New Jersey jury or judge
has 12 aggravating circumstances to ponder that qualify a defendant for
Warren County prosecutors have had far fewer potential death penalty cases
over the years than their Northampton County counterparts.
In their most recent opportunity to seek the death penalty, authorities in
Warren County decided against it.
Alonzo Brown, 49, of Easton, allegedly shot two people Aug. 6, 2004,
outside the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center on Route 22 in Pohatcong
Township. His former lover, Carmen L. Santiago Gonzalez, 36, of Allentown,
died but her companion that night, Theodore P. Harris, 45, of Glassboro,
survived after being shot three times.
County Prosecutor Thomas S. Ferguson said several factors come into play
when his office looks at whether to seek the death penalty. A committee of
assistant prosecutors is formed, and that committee then examines case law
and existing statutes before making a decision.
"It's a legal analysis," Ferguson said. "Some might rise to the level (of
the death penalty) and some don't."
While there are several death row inmates in the Garden State, there
hasn't been an execution in decades. Ferguson said there is a debate among
county prosecutors about whether it's even worth seeking the death penalty
if defendants are just going to languish on death row while exhausting
"I think in New Jersey it's fair to say there's a debate amongst
prosecutors whether it's a waste of time," he said. "I'm not saying it is
a waste of time, I'm just saying there is a debate."
He declined to say whether he thought the seldom-used death penalty
process was a fair one.
"The system is the system and the results are the results," he said. "I'm
not going to take a political position on it. It is what it is."
Morganelli said he is supportive of the process in Pennsylvania, which was
upheld as recently as 1990 when it was challenged and later affirmed by
the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I think the Pennsylvania statute is a very good statute," he said.
(source: The Express-Times)
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