Capital crimes: Judge speaks on death penalty

Judge speaks on death penalty

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Richard Hartman of Williamsport, left, and Todd Lauer of Jersey Shore look at crime scene photos during a presentation on the death penalty by by Judge Marc Lovecchio at the St. Joseph the Worker Parish hall Thursday.

Gruesome photographs, handed out by a Lycoming County judge on Thursday, brought the reality of the death penalty front and center inside St. Joseph the Worker Parish.

“I’m going to make you feel uncomfortable,” Judge Marc F. Lovecchio said as he distributed images of individuals bludgeoned, strangled, shot and nearly decapitated.

President Donald Trump recently agreed to have Attorney General Jeff Sessions permit U.S. attorneys to seek death against individuals such as drug kingpins. Lovecchio addressed that action to a crowd of about 50, then described what is needed in Pennsylvania when a death penalty case is on the docket.

Primarily, it requires a first-degree homicide charge with aggravated factors.

“These factors make it worse than a typical homicide,” he said, citing instances of criminals who used torture, shot five individuals in cold blood, killed a judge or a police officer or, in some cases, killed someone while in the course of committing a felony.

The district attorney has discretion whether or not to seek the death penalty, he said, delving into his own experience in Sullivan County, when he was chosen to defend a 19-year-old and paid $35 per hour as the attorney.

“I was the only thing between him and the needle,” Lovecchio said.

The jurist said death cases are different because the punishment is permanent. He spoke of the angst he feels sentencing individuals to life in prison.

“I’ve sent a 19-year-old to life and in Pennsylvania, life means life,” Lovecchio said.

There is a slim hope the governor may grant a commutation in a sentencing but that doesn’t happen much, he added.

Then there is the reality that the average death row inmate waits for that death for 25 years, he said.

Death sentences mean fairness in due process. Lawyers representing the defendant often get any medical expert, investigator and legal leeway granted to them.

“Guess who pays for that?” Lovecchio asked, and answering in a second, “You.”

A death penalty case requires at least two lawyers, one who will fight for the client’s innocence and another to argue against the need for the death penalty.

In a death penalty case, Lovecchio said, the courts are far more willing to give lawyers leeway, to grant continuances, allow them to issue subpoenas and find investigative evidence than they are when that punishment is not an issue.

Jury selection, too, differs in death penalty cases, he said.

In these, the lawyer brings each prospective juror in and asks them questions individually, he said.

The jurors must be “death qualified,” he said. That means if they express their opposition to capital punishment, they are excused.

“On any other felony case, you can get rid of seven people,” Lovecchio said, describing the painstaking attention to detail done on these types of special cases.

Another type of due process in death penalty cases is that the jury decides the penalty and it must be a unanimous decision.

But that takes into account the aggravating factors, which must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and weighs them against the mitigating factors, which may include issues such as age of the defendant, his or her upbringing, parents may be brought in and testify how they will be lost without their son or daughter.

So, the question is why have the death penalty in 2018? There’s general deterrence — such as if the individuals committing the homicide(s) might be drug crazed, or insane or have acted impulsively, then getting them onto death row might be good for society.

But is there actual deterrence or a lower rate of homicide in states with the penalty?

Lovecchio said the facts indicate that’s not always the case.

For example, the murder rate in Pennsylvania is at 5.2 percent for every 100,000 people.

But New Jersey, which doesn’t allow capital punishment, has a murder rate lower than its neighbor. That state has cities with relatively high crime rates, such as Trenton, Newark and Camden, he said.

Illinois doesn’t allow it, but it has Chicago. New York, which has a 3.2 percent homicide rate per 100,000 persons, is lower than Pennsylvania, which allows the death penalty, he said.

A factor that favors capital punishment, however, is retribution, Lovecchio said.

“Does the punishment fit the crime?” he asked.

Here’s where it can become a sticky subject, he added, citing the recent deaths by gunshot of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

The judge noted how he thought some of the parents of the slain students don’t want death for the suspect alleged of killing them. He said he believes some of the parents want the individual, if convicted or if he pleads guilty, to live the rest of his life in isolation.

The argument against the penalty includes the use of “supermax” prisons for those convicted of such crimes. At these facilities, individuals are in solitary confinement, or alone for 23 hours of the day and night and permitted just one hour of exercise.

Financial consideration for imposing death sentences as more advantageous to the taxpayer is another myth, Lovecchio said.

“The biggest myth is it costs less to execute,” he said.

A study he cited about Florida prisons indicated that the state would have saved $51 million had it not had to execute or have inmates on death row.

“That money could have been sent to education,” Lovecchio said.

Why does it cost so much? Consider how many guards it requires for an inmate on death row. Instead of one to escort him or her into an exercise yard, there are four.

“There’s no limit to the time on death row,” Lovecchio said, noting the recent death of Charles Manson, who committed killings in the late 1960s.

Then, there’s the execution process. The lethal injection is a combination of a drug to make the inmate unconscious, then to paralyze and then to stop the heart.

Some states, such as Utah and Oklahoma, have a firing squad, he said.

“The irony in all this is we are trying to make the worse possible punishment go down easier,” he said. “Why not have public hanging in the town square or put it on CNN?”

Recently, it took an execution two hours to be done, and another required 45 minutes. The manner of how a state decides its execution is done through the Legislature, he said.

The morality of the finality is another consideration. Recently, Pope Francis said the death penalty is a legal instrument, but humanity must be moral, and that takes into account issues such as the race of the individuals who are dying on death row, their social standing and their gender.

Without a doubt, there is a disproportionate amount of African Americans on death row, Lovecchio said. Likewise, an equally disproportionate number of women are not awaiting that fate.

A black man who kills a white person is three times more likely to get the death penalty, Lovecchio said.

The photographs the judge shared related to the following cases:

• A Clinton County postmaster who shot his wife, 8-month-old son, 16-year-old son and 11-year-old son, and put the gun in the 16-year-old’s hand to make it appear like the lad had been the murderer. He received four life sentences.

• A young man who went into Sullivan County and shot his wealthy neighbor, stepping on his body and taking his wallet as a souvenir. He pleaded guilty and was found to be mentally ill.

• A man and woman who needed money for drugs killed an antique shop owner using a hammer, then took a knife and tried to sever his head did not receive the death penalty.

• A black man who burglarized and choked a woman, then put her in a tub to make it appear to be a drowning received a sentence of death, the judge said.

“The stakes don’t get any higher,” he said.