Cop killer Rahmael Holt’s execution could be years away, experts say
Convicted cop killer Rahmael Holt’s appeal of his death sentence to the state Supreme Court could take a year to 18 months to resolve, says a Westmoreland County attorney representing another convicted killer on Pennsylvania’s death row.
It may take even longer to be carried out, as there are people who have been on the state’s death row for 30 years, said Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and chairman of the criminology department at Saint Vincent College.
Exactly how long Holt’s appeals will take will depend on the complexity of the issues and whether he gets new representation, said Adam Cogan, a Ligonier attorney representing Donald Mitchell Tedford, 68. Tedford is the only death row inmate from Butler County among the 136 in Pennsylvania.
Tedford was convicted and sentenced to death in 1987 for raping and murdering Jeanine Revak, 22, in 1986.
Tim Dawson, one of Holt’s two court-appointed defense attorneys, said Friday that he and Jim Robinson will continue to represent Holt in the appeal to the Supreme Court unless Holt obtains private counsel. Holt was unable to do that before his murder trial, Dawson said.
Cogan, who said he was not following the Holt case closely, said the Supreme Court likes to move cases along “fairly quickly,” but a change in representation would take more time to allow them to become acclimated with the record.
“You just don’t know,” he said. “Sometimes these things get delayed for reasons like that. There are wild cards there.”
Holt, 31, remained in Westmoreland County Prison on Friday, the day after a jury sentenced him to death for fatally shooting New Kensington police Officer Brian Shaw two years ago today.
The jury found that the undisputed aggravating circumstance in the case — that Shaw was a police officer killed in the line of duty — was not outweighed by three mitigating circumstances; namely, Holt’s lack of parental guidance growing up, growing up in a high-crime environment and the violent death of his brother.
“Apparently there were just a couple of witnesses called on mitigation,” Antkowiak said. “The prosecution was able to put on victim impact testimony of the family of the officer — that always is extraordinarily compelling testimony to be sure.”
Holt was placed on suicide watch following his conviction Tuesday, a county jail official said Friday. It was not known when he would be transferred out of the lockup.
His attorneys plan to challenge the constitutionality of the death penalty as being cruel, Dawson said.
“Half the country has abolished it or placed a moratorium on it, including Pennsylvania,” he said. “Hopefully in our lifetimes we will see the abolishment of the death penalty.”
Holt will become the fifth death row inmate from Westmoreland County. Of the 136 currently there, all are men. By race, 66 are black and 56 are white, while 12 are Hispanic and two are Asian, according to the state Department of Corrections.
While Holt’s jury was all-white, Dawson said he’s not sure race played a dominant role in the proceedings. Less than 3% of Westmoreland County’s population is black, and there were no blacks in the pool from which Holt’s jury was chosen.
“That’s always a question: did he have a jury of his peers?” Dawson said. “I don’t see how anyone can relate to his experience unless they experienced it themselves.”
No executions in 20 years
Pennsylvania has not carried out an execution in more than 20 years. Gary M. Heidnik, 56, was executed in July 1999, 11 years after he was given two death sentences in July 1988 for murdering two women he had imprisoned in his home, according to the Department of Corrections.
Only two other people have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in Pennsylvania in 1978. The other two — Keith Zettlemoyer, convicted of murder in 1980, and Leon Jerome Moser, convicted for three killings in 1985 — were both executed in 1995.
Zettlemoyer was the first person to be executed by lethal injection after the method was changed in 1990. The last execution by electrocution had been Elmo Smith in 1962.
Gov. Tom Wolf placed a moratorium on executions in 2015, and it remains in place although it does not effect trials or prosecutions, spokesman J.J. Abbott said.
Wolf is waiting for state lawmakers to address a report on the effectiveness of capital punishment in Pennsylvania and make recommendations for changes to the law.
But Wolf will not be the governor addressing Holt’s warrant, Antkowiak said.
“The appeals will take longer than the current governor’s term,” he said. “That’s a factor that will figure into this.”
Antkowiak noted there have been a significant number of reversals of death penalty verdicts in Pennsylvania, which the state Supreme Court has noted.
In the decade before 2012, there had been 25 death penalty reversals, he said.
“That’s a shocking statistic when you think about it,” he said.
Most were reversed because of ineffective counsel not bringing forth all of the information to mitigate a death sentence.
A reversal would take a case back to the sentencing hearing with a new jury and a new round of appeals.
“The commonwealth would have a problem getting the death penalty in those cases,” Antkowiak said. “The immediacy of the trial and the incident by that point is now many years old. It would make it much more difficult for the prosecution.”
Dawson said the presence of the Shaw family, emotional statements by the officer’s mother and brother, and the courtroom’s being filled each day of the trial with supporters likely affected the jury.
“The room was dominated by Shaw supporters and law enforcement. That’s to be expected,” he said. “They lost a brother-in-blue, and Shaw’s family lost a loving son and brother. I think everything played out as you would expect.”
Six people have been exonerated from Pennsylvania’s death row, Antkowiak said.
“That’s a significant enough reason to be concerned, to make sure that everything is being done to ensure that all of the evidence in a case is brought out, that nothing is hidden, and nothing is not disclosed,” he said. “Anything that could affect the guilt determination process has to be brought out and made known to the defendant.
“You have to play this game with the cards face up to be sure you have done all that you can in a human system to make this final, ultimate and irrevocable determination.”
Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, [email protected] or via Twitter .