Execution could reopen debate in Pennsylvania

| Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

The execution of a murderer scheduled for Thursday — the first in the state in more than a decade if it proceeds — could reinvigorate calls to end the death penalty in Pennsylvania, legal observers said.

“An execution makes (the conversation) more real,” said Judy Ritter, a criminal law professor at Widener Law School. “It's not just something you read about in the newspaper anymore or in court decisions. ... There are judges and certainly prosecutors who say the death penalty has no meaning because it's never carried out, that it's just sort of a remedy that has absolutely nothing to it. If this happens, that will not be the case.”

Unless a court stays the execution or Gov. Tom Corbett grants clemency and reduces the sentence to life in prison, state officials plan to execute Hubert Michael Jr., 56, formerly of Lemoyne in Cumberland County.

Michael is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 7 p.m. at SCI Rockview in Centre County. He pleaded guilty to the July 1993 shooting death of Trista Elizabeth Eng, 16, after kidnapping her in York County.

The Board of Pardons on Wednesday unanimously denied his bid for clemency. If Michael files for reconsideration, there will be a hearing Thursday afternoon. His lawyers also have appealed previous federal court rulings in the case to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.

Jeffrey Kirchmeier, a criminal law professor at the City University of New York in Queens, said carrying out an execution will bring it from the abstract to reality in the minds of the public.

“When you hear of a horrible crime, you want some severe swift punishment and that's a normal reaction. But it's different than when it actually takes place,” he said. “When it becomes reality, people start debating the cost of the death penalty, whether the procedures are fair, how can we make sure an innocent person isn't executed ... all these things serve as a practical matter when executions start taking place.”

When Corbett signed a death warrant for Michael in September, it was his third warrant signed since Michael's conviction. Judges delayed his execution in 1996 and 2004 pending appeals.

Pennsylvania reinstated the death penalty in 1976 and has executed three prisoners between then and 1999. All three waived their appeals and asked that their executions be carried out.

If the execution does not occur, it should not come as much of a surprise, said St. Vincent College law professor Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and criminal defense attorney.

In September, a Philadelphia judge delayed the execution of Terrance Williams, 46, who was scheduled to die for the death of Amos Norwood, 56, a chemist and church volunteer. Judge M. Teresa Sarmina said prosecutors suppressed evidence that Norwood had sexually abused Williams as a teenager, a mitigating circumstance never heard by the jury that sentenced Williams to death in 1987.

“I think at this point, the public is accustomed to the fact of delays. I certainly don't think another one is going to cause anyone any particular consternation,” Antkowiak said.

In a related development, a federal judge ruled that the Corrections Department cannot use curtains or any other method to prevent witnesses from seeing and hearing all of what transpires if the execution goes forward.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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