Death penalty sought in Pittsburgh sisters' killing

Suspect Wade's previous convictions factor into district attorney’s decision

The Allegheny County District Attorney's office will seek the death penalty against a man accused of killing two East Liberty sisters in February.

Allen Wade, 43, faces a number of charges in the case, including two counts of homicide. His case has been assigned to Common Pleas Judge Edward J. Borkowski, and the notice of intent to seek capital punishment was filed Wednesday.

With his filing, seven death penalty cases are pending in Allegheny County.

Susan and Sarah Wolfe were found dead in their home on Chislett Street about 1 p.m. Feb. 7 after coworkers became concerned after Susan Wolfe didn't show up for her job as a teacher's aide at Hillel Academy in Squirrel Hill. Sarah Wolfe was a psychiatrist at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic.

Investigators believe the women were killed the night before, each by a single gunshot wound to the head.

DNA from Wade, a convicted felon who lived next door to the women, was found under Susan Wolfe's fingernails, prosecutors said.

Typically, the district attorney's office consults with victims' family members before choosing to pursue capital punishment.

John Wolfe, the father of the two women, declined to comment Wednesday, except to say that the family was deferring to the district attorney's office regarding decisions on the death penalty.

Attorney Blaine Jones, who represented Wade during his preliminary hearing last month, said he was retained only for that proceeding and no longer has the case.

Still, he said, he knew there was a chance the district attorney's office would seek the death penalty.

"I understand looking at a person's prior criminal past, particularly if it's a violent past," Mr. Jones said.

Wade has two previous convictions for robbery.

To seek capital punishment, the prosecution must prove at least one aggravating factor. There are 18 under Pennsylvania law. In this case, the district attorney's office has asserted five. They include:

* The victim was a prosecution witness to a murder or felony committed by the defendant. Investigators believe Susan Wolfe, who was found naked, was killed first, and that Sarah Wolfe arrived home during the attack. She was found fully clothed.

* The defendant committed the killing while in the perpetration of a felony.

* The defendant has a significant history of felony convictions involving violence.

* The defendant has been convicted of another offense before or at the time of the offense at issue for which a sentence of life or death was possible.

* The defendant has been convicted of another murder in any jurisdiction either before or at the time of the offense at issue.

Veteran defense attorney Patrick Thomassey, who has been involved in about a dozen death penalty cases, characterized the last two factors as "double dipping."

"I think the aggravators were designed originally to apply to the situation where a guy is on trial for murder and has a homicide conviction in the past," he said. "The death penalty is designed for the career criminal who commits a heinous crime that makes it one step above the normal murder."

But prosecutors argue that the last two factors are designed to apply to a case with multiple victims.

"It's an acknowledgement of two separate violent acts," said David Freed, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. "From our perspective, that's how the statute is designed."

Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz said that the number of aggravators laid out by the prosecution is not as significant as it might seem.

"It isn't, and it won't be to the jury, either," he said. "It is the quality and the nature of the aggravators. It's not supposed to be counting."

Sometimes, Mr. Ledewitz continued, "one mitigator may outweigh five, six, seven aggravators."

Mitigating factors can include things such as childhood abuse, mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse and dysfunctional family life. Mr. Jones said he did not know what mitigators might come into play in Wade's case.

"The community is up in arms about this case because the victims are so sympathetic," Mr. Ledewitz said. "But the jury won't be. Juries understand their obligation pretty well."

Liz Navratil contributed. First Published May 7, 2014 11:10 AM


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