Court halts Pennsylvania execution

Lawyers say killer is mentally impaired; victim's family opposes stay

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BELLEFONTE, Pa. -- A convicted murderer outlived his execution warrant Thursday night after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to throw out a stay issued by a lower court.

Pennsylvania corrections officials said they remained ready to execute Hubert L. Michael Jr., 56, if the high court agreed before 11:59 p.m. to a request by the state attorney general to let the lethal injection go forward. Michael was sentenced to death for murdering 16-year-old Trista Eng in 1993 after kidnapping her in York County.

Pennsylvania last executed a prisoner in 1999; the state has not executed someone contesting their sentence since 1962. Another prisoner came within days of his Oct. 3 execution date before a Philadelphia judge issued a stay.

Michael arrived at the State Correctional Institution Rockview, where the execution complex is located, at 6:09 a.m. from his home prison in Greene County. He appeared "somewhat emotional" during the trip but was quiet and composed after arriving, said Susan McNaughton, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections. Twelve minutes later, he was placed in a holding cell 20 feet from the execution chamber. He ate a breakfast of French toast, orange juice and coffee, and visited with an attorney and a spiritual adviser. He passed time reading the Bible and a newspaper.

His attorneys were pursuing two federal appeals in an attempt to stop the execution, and in the early afternoon a panel of judges ordered a stay so the case could be returned to a lower court for additional proceedings. The defense team had argued the courts had not considered certain mental health claims.

Executions in Pennsylvania once were conducted at 10 p.m., but they are now planned for 7 p.m. to make it easier to reach the courts in last-minute appeals, Ms. McNaughton said. On Thursday, an official with the U.S. Supreme Court distributed the order affirming the stay at 8:25 p.m.

In the summer of 1993, Trista Eng was walking to her summer job at a restaurant in Dillsburg, York County, when Michael stopped and offered her a ride, according to an account by the governor's office. Instead, Michael drove her to state game lands in the county, where he shot her three times with a handgun and hid her body in the woods. He later explained the murder by saying he had been under pressure from an unrelated rape charge, the office said.

On Wednesday, the state Board of Pardons unanimously rejected a bid for clemency after attorneys for Michael argued he is impaired by Asperger's syndrome and is deeply remorseful for his actions. Friends and family of Trista spoke against the petition, describing the impact on their lives of losing a daughter, sister, niece and friend.

Gov. Tom Corbett received updates Thursday in his office in Harrisburg in case the execution were to go forward and another last-minute legal challenge required his intervention, said Kevin Harley, his spokesman.

While the case is back in the courts, the corrections department remains ready to carry out the sentence, Ms. McNaughton said.

"If and when the stay is lifted by the court, the execution will be scheduled directly," she said.

state - neigh_east

Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141.


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