Death row inmates stay indefinitely

No one has been executed in Pennsylvania since 1999


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Richard Baumhammers and Ronald Taylor have a lot in common.

Both are racially motivated mass killers who slaughtered innocents within a month of each other a decade ago, Mr. Baumhammers targeting minorities and Mr. Taylor targeting whites.

Both are on death row.

And neither is likely to be executed for many years, if ever.

Gov. Ed Rendell signed a death warrant for Mr. Baumhammers, 44, last week, but he admitted the execution isn't likely to happen on March 18, the scheduled date for lethal injection.

That's because the state has what the governor calls a "de facto" moratorium on executions.

The governor has signed 101 death warrants, including one for Mr. Taylor in 2006. But the state hasn't killed anyone since Gary Heidnik in 1999. More than 220 prisoners are on death row statewide.

Mr. Baumhammers' lawyer, Caroline Roberto, refused to comment on what her next step will be and said his parents won't discuss their son, either.

But realistically, the only way Mr. Baumhammers' execution will take place is if he decides to waive any more appeals. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, Pennsylvania has never executed anyone who had taken full advantage of the appeals process. The three prisoners put to death since 1978 all waived their rights.

Mr. Baumhammers has indicated at least once that he wanted to die.

In a recorded 2001 jailhouse phone conversation with his parents, he told them, "Well, I'll just waive my appeal and die."

He later said, "To tell you the truth, I don't want to sit in jail the rest of my life. I'd rather be executed anyhow."

Since then, however, he and his lawyers have taken all the usual appeals. The most recent was a petition for a writ of certiorari filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in June. The writ asks the high court to review the case, but the justices denied the request on Oct. 5.

The next step for Mr. Baumhammers, in light of the signed death warrant, would be to file a request for a stay of execution with the Allegheny County trial judge.

If that fails, he would likely file a habeas corpus petition in U.S. District Court, asking a federal judge to review the case. From there, it could end up in state court again or it could wend its way through the federal appellate process up to the Supreme Court.

All of that will take years. It's the same across the United States. The average appeals process in capital cases is 12.7 years, the longest it's ever been.

The main reason for all the appeals is that exonerations, like those that led to a moratorium on executions in Illinois in 2000, have cast doubt on how the death penalty is administered.

Every case is now subject to more thorough reviews as lawyers, and in some cases anti-death penalty groups, file petitions to stay executions or review evidence.

One of the best examples in Pennsylvania is the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of shooting Philadelphia police Officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981.

Mr. Abu-Jamal has become a symbol for anti-death penalty activists who say he was framed, but police and prosecutors say the evidence against him is overwhelming. Gov. Tom Ridge signed his death warrant in 1995, but he remains on death row as appeals continue.

The appellate process in death row cases is especially lengthy because there are two levels of judicial review. In Pennsylvania, an inmate's petition for a new trial is first heard by the state's appellate courts, up to the state Supreme Court.

After those appeals are exhausted, an inmate can repeat the process in the federal courts.

Each stage takes months or years, and state clemency hearings at the end of it all can add even more time.

In the end, Pennsylvania's inmates sit on death row indefinitely, as they do in most other states. Even Texas, which executes more prisoners than any other state, is seeing long delays.

Mr. Baumhammers joins these prisoners from Western Pennsylvania for whom governors have signed death warrants. For some inmates, governors have signed warrants several times. Although Gov. Ridge twice signed death warrants for convicted killers Ernest Simmons and Dino Rucci, both are no longer on death row.

• John Lesko and Michael Travaglia, Westmoreland County. First warrants signed in 1985. Convicted in the "kill for thrill" crime rampage of 1979-80 in which they murdered four people in an eight-day rampage, including rookie Apollo police officer Leonard Miller.

• Charles E. Cross, Beaver County. First warrant signed in 1990. Convicted in the 1981 murders of Denise Lucic of Ambridge, who was the wife of his co-worker, and her two children, John Jr., 3, and Danielle, 7.

• Lawrence D. Christy, Cambria County. Warrant signed in 1992. Convicted of the 1980 shooting death of James Volk, a night watchman at the Gallitzin American Legion.

• Scott Wayne Blystone, Fayette County. Warrant signed in 1995. Convicted in the 1986 shooting death of Dalton Smithburger Jr., a hitchhiker whom Mr. Blystone and three friends picked up and robbed.

• Salvador Santiago, Allegheny County. Warrant signed in 1995. Convicted in the 1985 killing of Patrick Huber of Glenshaw during a robbery at the Minuteman Press shop on the South Side.

• Andre Stevens, Beaver County. Warrant signed in 1996. Convicted in the killings of his ex-wife, Brenda Jo Stevens, and off-duty Rochester police Officer Michael Love just after they left the dance floor at a Beaver County bar in 1992.

• Roland Steele, Washington County. Warrant signed in 1999. Convicted in the 1985 "karate-style" murders of three elderly women: Lucille Horner, 88, Minnie Warwick, 86, and Sarah Knutz, 85.

• Mark D. Breakiron, Fayette County. Warrant signed in 2000. Convicted of the 1987 stabbing death of waitress Saundra Marie Martin.

• Ronald Lee Weiss, Indiana County. Warrant signed in 2002. Convicted in the 1978 clubbing death of Barbara Bruzda, 16.

• Anthony Fieberger, Allegheny County. Warrant signed in 2003. Convicted in the 1989 strangulation of Norma Parker of Carnegie and the rape and murder seven years earlier of Marcia Jones, a Mount Washington teenager.

• Michelle Tharp, Washington County. Warrant signed in 2004. Convicted in the 1998 starvation death of her daughter, Tausha Lee Lanham, 7.

• Gerald Watkins, Allegheny County. Warrant signed in 2005. Convicted in the 1994 shooting deaths of his ex-girlfriend, Beth Ann Anderson, their baby, Melanie, and Ms. Anderson's son, Charles Kevin Kelly Jr., 9, at their house in Homewood.

• Leroy Fears, Allegheny County. Warrant signed in 2005. Convicted of sexually assaulting and murdering Shawn Hagan, 12, in 1994 after meeting the boy at a fishing spot along the Monongahela River.

• Ronald Taylor, Allegheny County. Warrant signed in 2006. Convicted of killing Joseph Healy, 71, Emil Sanielevici, 20 and John Kroll, 55, during a 2000 Wilkinsburg shooting rampage targeting white people.

• Connie Williams, Allegheny County. Warrant signed in 2006. Convicted of killing his wife, Frances, with a steak knife and dismembering her body in 1999 in Crafton Heights.

• Wayne Mitchell, Allegheny County. Warrant signed in 2007. Convicted of raping and killing his estranged wife, Robin Little, 19, in Homewood in 1997.

• Mark Edwards Jr., Fayette County. Warrant signed in 2007. Convicted in the 2002 killings of Larry Bobish Sr., 50, his wife Joanna, 42, and their pregnant daughter, Krystal Leigh Bobish, 17, in their North Union home.


Correction/Clarification: (Published Jan. 26, 2010) Although Gov. Tom Ridge twice signed death warrants for convicted killers Ernest Simmons and Dino Rucci, both are no longer on death row. This story about executions as originally published Jan. 25, 2010, omitted that fact.

Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510. First Published January 25, 2010 5:00 AM


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