A notorious Erie County killer is back on death row after a federal panel reversed a Pittsburgh judge's ruling from a decade ago.
In a 2-1 decision, a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week upheld the death penalty for David Copenhefer, 65, convicted of kidnapping and murdering a banker's wife, Sally Weiner, in a 1988 case that captivated the region.
The appellate judges overturned the ruling of U.S. District Judge Maurice Cohill Jr., who in 2002 threw out Copenhefer's death sentence. Judge Cohill said the trial judge had failed to instruct the jury that it had to find that Copenhefer's lack of a prior criminal record was a factor in mitigating against the death penalty.
Judge Cohill ruled that the jury, brought in from Allegheny County, "arbitrarily" sentenced him to death, violating his protections against cruel and unusual punishment guaranteed under the Eighth Amendment.
Two of the 3rd Circuit judges said Judge Cohill was wrong and that the jurors properly considered the mitigating factors, including the lack of a record, and weighed those against the aggravating factors. The aggravating factors won out, and they sentenced Copenhefer to die.
Writing for the majority, Judge Maryanne Trump Barry said that "not a single juror believed that his lack of a prior record -- or, indeed, any of the many potential mitigating factors argued by defense counsel -- mitigated the painstakingly planned murder."
Theodore McKee, chief judge of the 3rd Circuit, disagreed, saying the jury did not properly consider the lack of a criminal record.
Weiner's body was discovered June 19, 1988, in a rural area near her home. She'd been shot in the head.
The FBI and state police said Copenhefer, who owned a nearby bookstore, emerged as a suspect because he'd been rejected for a loan by Weiner's husband, Harry Weiner, manager of Pennbank in Corry.
Authorities said Copenhefer called her June 16, pretending to be a representative from a congressman's office, and asked to meet with her to discuss arrangements for the presentation of an award to her husband.
The next day she drove to a church in Corry where the meeting was to take place. Police and the FBI said he abducted her there, drove her to a remote area and shot her as part of an elaborate ransom plot.
Agents tied Copenhefer's fingerprints, computer, guns and ammunition, clothing, car and materials from his home and his bookstore to Sally Weiner or to the murder scene.
Agents also discovered a ransom note and a 22-point plan for the kidnapping scheme on Copenhefer's computer. During the case, authorities said, Copenhefer even tried to hire two jail inmates to kill the lead FBI agent handling the investigation.
Torsten Ove: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1510.