HOW MANY BODIES

 

That always was the first question asked by me when I found myself assigned to a new case. I was an investigator in the Capital Habeas Unit of the Federal Public Defender (FPD) in Philadelphia for six years, July 1999 through May 2005. That office represented death sentenced inmates awaiting execution on Death Row in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. During that period we lost only one client, a volunteer which, in death penalty parlance, means that he had waived his right to appeal his sentence of death. He wanted to die, or thought that he did. It was hard to be sure because he was profoundly mentally ill. His kidnap, rape, torture and cannibalization of several female victims bore eloquent testimony to the depth of mitigating circumstances that had shaped his psyche. How many bodies? This client could claim several as he was strapped to the gurney on July 7, 1999 at the State Correctional Institute in Rockview, Pennsylvania. I had been on the job for one week when, upon hearing of the execution, my supervisor turned to me and said, “You have been here only a week and we have lost our first client in a decade.” True, although I had not worked on his defense, other very capable attorneys and investigators in the unit had, and we had lost him. There would be no other executions on our watch, but several close calls.

Another client had only one body. He was sentenced to death for a gruesome murder in 1980. The victim was 87 at the time of his death, our client was only 30. The victim was stabbed 57 times in his living room and bled to death there in Meadville, Pennsylvania. A little more than one hundred dollars was taken from his wallet by our client and his codefendant, a young woman. She was 19 and pregnant with their child at the time. She was sentenced to life in prison for her role. Our client had been on the row for nearly 20 years when I was assigned to his case in August of 1999.

 

My investigation revealed that our client was from Cincinnati, Ohio. He never denied having stabbed the victim who was a lifelong resident of Meadville, a small town in Crawford County in far western Pennsylvania. It was our client’s first visit to Meadville. His codefendant had grown up there and was a next door neighbor to the victim who sexually abused her first when she was 12. The family dog had nipped at the victim as he walked by their yard one day. The codefendant’s mother sent her to check on the well being of their elderly neighbor. The twelve year old girl was very pretty, striking for her age. He had fondled her and warned her to keep it a secret, rewarding her with a quarter. His sexual advances and rewards multiplied, their relationship continuing when my client’s codefendant was not incarcerated or in rehab for the next five to six years.

The number of stab wounds never made sense in the context of a homicide in the course of a robbery. Crawford County had few homicides and our client was their first and only capital case. Meadville is a sleepy hamlet better known for the zippers which were manufactured there and a bucolic way of life in the surrounding farming communities sprinkled with Amish and those of European descent, than any crime. It is a very conservative, Republican county with few African Americans. The victim was white, our client and codefendant black and the Ku Klux Klan was alive and well in Crawford County.

 

We learned that the codefendant eventually fled from that county and the abuse of her neighbor, but not very far. Her mother had moved to Cincinnati and it was there as a teenager that she met our client. Her mother was dating our client’s brother and the two were introduced. Our client was taken by the beautiful teenager and they become inseparable. Both were unemployed and drinking heavily, dabbling in drugs and petty thievery. The teenager girl became pregnant. She   applied for welfare benefits. The processing of her claim would take some time and they were broke. She told our client that she thought that she could “get them some money in Meadville” her former home town. She was not specific as to how but our client was game. They took  a bus across the Ohio state line and into Pennsylvania where their troubles began in earnest. The lives of many in Meadville changed forever that day.

 

Our investigation revealed that fueled by wine and barbiturates, the pair visited with her friends and family, in a euphoric but manic traipse through her childhood haunts. From a large, extended family, her parents divorced with her father remaining in Pennsylvania, her relatives were approached, mooched from as she led our client around to their homes. Eventually they made their way to her elderly neighbor’s residence where she had been led astray through her early teen years. Her former neighbor was not as receptive as she had expected. She had tried to leave our client with her cousin who lived two doors away but he did not want to be left there. Her former neighbor felt threatened by the younger, more virile rival who accompanied the codefendant. The neighbor of course wanted to spend time with her alone and told her that he had no cash, asking that she return alone later in the day after he went to the bank. She and our client acquiesced and they again made the rounds, drinking and partying.

The codefendant made the mistake, one that would ultimately come back to haunt them, of confiding in a girlfriend that she planned to get some money from her former neighbor, “one way or another.” When she did return to the residence later that evening, managing to leave our client at her cousin’s house, the neighbor was more receptive. He toyed with her asking for sexual favors before parting with any cash. Our client then arrived unannounced and unexpected by both of them. The neighbor withdrew and the codefendant pointed our client to a pair of shears on the mantle. She told our client that he would have to stab the neighbor in order to get his money. Our client grasped the shears and stabbed the man three or four times in his side and back. He turned, looking away as the man fell. Our client went through the man’s pockets at the codefendant’s direction, removed his wallet and handed it to her. Our client walked away looking for a towel. When he returned to the bathroom, the man was bleeding profusely from multiple stab wounds about his face and neck. They left him lying there, gasping for breath, and fled into the night. Unbeknownst to our client his partner in crime dropped a bloody knife at the foot of the stairs. Our client threw the shears into a bush at the corner of the street. They hitchhiked to Oil City where the codefendant rented them a room. She made our client discard his bloody sneakers, buying him a new pair from the few odd dollars in profit from the robbery. They plotted their escape to Ohio.

 

Back in Meadville a day later a local detective was called to the quiet neighborhood as the victim had not been seen by friends and family. He entered the unlocked front door and found the victim crumpled where had had fallen and bled to death from some 57 stab wounds. Crawford County residents awoke to their first homicide in a century in that quiet burg. The crime remained a shock and, but for a cup of coffee with a public defender investigator who was familiar with the codefendant from having worked on her defense in another assault and robbery of an elderly male victim a year or so before, may have gone unsolved to this day. In that earlier case the codefendant had targeted a victim who had taken advantage of her sexually and then blamed her younger male companions when they all were arrested shortly thereafter. The investigator who had worked that first case told the detective assigned to the homicide that if the codefendant was out of jail, he should find her and determine her whereabouts on the night that her former neighbor was killed. The detective checked and found that not only was she recently released from jail but had been in town with a stranger on the day of the crime. The detective began to look for them.

 

From Oil City the murderers fled through Pittsburgh where the codefendant imposed upon another family, two sisters, whom she had met in jail. Still lacking even bus fare for their return to Ohio, the codefendant prostituted herself for bus fare while our client laid low in the notorious, drug infested North Hills project where her former jail mates resided. The codefendant made an even more damning admission to one of her jail mates, while explaining their plight and, inadvertently, the balance of the stab wounds inflicted on the victim, confiding in her, “I killed someone but my boyfriend does not know it.”

 

In the meantime through his investigation the detective in Meadville had learned that the codefendant’s family had moved to Cincinnati from Meadville and had notified authorities there. He had retraced the footsteps of our client and the codefendant during the days leading to the victim’s death. As the two left Pittsburgh and returned to their address in Cincinnati looking for her welfare check, the local police with the neighborhood under surveillance, arrested them. They notified the detective who then traveled to Ohio and interviewed the two. Our client admitted to having stabbed the victim three or four times in his confession, attempting to protect the woman he loved and their unborn child. They both were extradited to Pennsylvania, tried and convicted with our client sentenced to death while the codefendant, blaming all of the stab wounds on our client, was sentenced to life in prison at SCI-Muncy. Saving herself by blaming others was becoming a familiar pattern in her criminal history.

I met our client on death row at SCI-Greene in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania (the same prison which had spawned Charles Graner and Lyndie England, the two prison guards of Abu Ghraib fame) where he had been housed for the better part of two decades. He was a quiet, shy and self-effacing man who was nearing 50 at the time. He was entitled to habeas corpus review of his case in the U. S. District Court in Pittsburgh and I was the investigator assigned to his case along with a new paralegal in the unit and two relatively young, inexperienced assistant federal defenders (AFDs). They were replaced shortly by a more seasoned and industrious AFD who helped shape our investigation and defense which would result in a grant of relief for our client some years later. My long journey on this case began when I traveled to SCI-Greene alone to meet our client. It was my first visit to death row. Unheard of in the history of our unit and contrary to the Department of Corrections (DOC) protocol I was allowed a contact visit with him. We shook hands and began a relationship which became a friendship in the ensuing years.

 

My new client confirmed much of what I already knew from the record which at that stage in his case consisted of several bankers boxes filled with the transcripts from his trial and that of his codefendant, the discovery from both cases, the medical examiner’s report of the autopsy on the victim and records gathered by prior counsel over the years attendant to his earlier appeals. He denied nothing but the balance of the stab wounds, again admitting to only three or four. He denied witnessing the codefendant inflicting any of the remaining wounds and believed that the victim remained alive when they fled his residence that night. He was wracked with guilt and profound remorse for his role in the sordid tragedy. He had suffered silently these many years on the row, fearing execution and fully expecting it one day.

The row is an outwardly antiseptic environment at SCI-Greene. We visitors to it are processed, screened and subjected to search just off of the main lobby which looks as much like a school foyer as a prison entrance. The long, solitary walk through another check point behind several thick steel doors which slide open very slowly and under the watchful eyes of the guards manning the central control room is the first sign that one is entering another world. The death sentenced denizens of L Unit, as the row officially is designated, is separate and distinct from that section of the prison, though also maximum security, in which inmates sentenced to a term of years rather than death are housed in population.

 

Our clients, all 230 odd of them, are locked down in separate cells 23 hours per day for the rest of their natural lives as they await execution. They are fed in their cells, allowed out only for showers, library privileges or visits from us, their family members, friends and spiritual advisors. They get one hour per week of recreational time in a slightly larger cage than their cell. It is a solitary life. They are shackled at their wrists and ankles during all periods spent out of the cell. They are subjected to strip searches prior to all moves. During their shifts the guards are as much imprisoned as their wards. It is not a comfortable existence for either guards or guarded. The food is institutional. The medical care hovers between nonexistent and barbaric. Some would assert the sentence of death is carried out institutionally and on a daily basis in small increments, with no prison gurney or lethal injection required.

 

Our client was one of the lucky ones, an “old head” who was liked by the guards and his fellow prisoners. He was a survivor, a trustee, a very unusual privilege for a death sentenced inmate, allowed to work outside of his cell in the corridors and lavatories as a janitor for several of those 23 hours each day. He worked hard, minded his own business and caused no trouble. His record in prison was unblemished by disciplinary charges. He watched as the younger, more violent population increased on the row with the influx of drug related death sentenced inmates during the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. He watched as the many mentally impaired balked at their fates, struggled and fought with one another and the guards. He was there as a resource after their venom was spewed during their induction which lasted months, years or lifetimes.

That first day I left the row and returned to Philadelphia telling my office mates about my visit. They were incredulous that I had been allowed a contact visit. I had expected no less than one having been employed as a criminal defense investigator in the private sector for 25 years before joining this capital habeas unit. I always had contact visits in state and federal prisons in which I had visited clients throughout New England and occasionally beyond. Indeed, another investigator in the unit whom I would learn to respect for his single minded determination on behalf of our clientele surmised that I was a plant from the attorney general or district attorney because of the privileged contact visit that I had been afforded with our client. It was only after visiting the row again with my colleagues, brilliant lawyers, iconoclasts who wore their rebel colors, largely denim in casual defiance of the DOC and the system which extracted such a toll on our clientele, that I understood their healthy paranoia. As was my custom in the private sector I had been attired in a suit and tie for my first visit, and despite my FPD nexus, must have been confused with one of the many medical experts whom our office regularly hired and who were permitted contact visits with our clients to conduct their examinations. Another mystery solved. Sadly the DOC never repeated their initial mistake with me. Our clients benefitted from human contact yet the DOC prohibited it, dehumanizing them and hastening their deaths.

In 2003 our investigation and the resulting habeas petition shaped and molded by the more seasoned AFD won our client a new sentencing hearing in state court. We had to exhaust his claims in that jurisdiction before filing in federal court. The Brady claims raised and documented in the habeas petition and resulting hearing in that venue were persuasive. The judge in Crawford County granted our client a new sentencing hearing. He agreed to a life sentence in population rather than risk another death sentence which is a resounding victory in the habeas arena. Our client died with quiet dignity from natural causes while in general population at SCI-Greene in July 2009. His codefendant remains at SCI-Muncy serving her life sentence for only one body, perhaps two if you count our late client.

© 2014 Joseph D. Thornton, created by the Daily Sun

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