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Judge agrees to step aside in death penalty proceeding

| Saturday, May 25, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A Fayette County judge on Friday agreed to recuse herself from a hearing regarding a death penalty homicide case.

Judge Nancy Vernon agreed to the request, submitted by the public defender representing Henry Clay Crawford.

Crawford, 56, of North Union, is accused of fatally stabbing Lisa Faye Tupta, 49, in her North Union home on Jan. 28. He is charged with homicide, aggravated assault and burglary.

Mike Garofalo, assistant public defender, told Vernon that Crawford objected to her hearing Friday's motions because he had been prosecuted by her office when she was the district attorney.

“I am raising that as an objection at this time,” Garofalo said.

Garofalo said he and Assistant District Attorney Michelle Kelley had reviewed numerous cases for which Crawford was prosecuted during Vernon's term as district attorney, from 2000 to 2010.

“Do you concur that I should recuse?” Vernon asked Kelley.

“Yes, your honor,” Kelley said.

“The court is of the opinion that I have no independent recollection, given the volume of the cases that I prosecuted as district attorney. However, I do want to avoid the appearance of impropriety, and I will recuse myself and assign this to another judge,” Vernon said.

Court records show Crawford was prosecuted at least half a dozen times from 2003 to 2008 for numerous charges, including assault, risking a catastrophe and reckless endangerment.

In March, District Attorney Jack Heneks Jr. announced his intention to seek the death penalty.

Heneks listed aggravating circumstances of a killing perpetrated during the commission of a felony, torture and Crawford's prior history of violent felony convictions. In addition, Heneks cited an active protection from abuse court order that forbade Crawford from having any contact with Tupta.

In April, public defender Jeffrey Whiteko filed a series of pretrial motions seeking to have the death penalty removed and the trial moved to another jurisdiction.

That filing included an argument that lethal injection represents cruel and unusual punishment.

Whiteko further argued that the state's capital sentencing scheme does not “afford a defendant the opportunity to contest the sufficiency of proof of the ‘aggravating circumstances' in a pretrial proceeding.”

Friday's hearing was to address the matters Whiteko raised.

Kelley filed a response earlier this week.

“The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that the death penalty does not violate the cruel and unusual punishment prohibitions of the United States and Pennsylvania's constitutions,” she wrote.

“Every state that has considered the issue has rejected the argument that lethal injection is cruel and unusual, despite evidence of some botched procedures. Lethal injection is commonly known as the most humane method of execution,” Kelley wrote.

Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com.

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