Can a convicted killer from Pennsylvania help topple the country’s death-penalty laws?
Activists who’ve long sought to abolish capital punishment are betting on it.
The U.S. Supreme Court is assessing whether to hear a challenge to a Pennsylvania woman’s death sentence that some hope might lead to a landmark decision to eliminate, or modify, the country’s death penalty system.
In June, Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered comments that death-penalty critics viewed as a promising omen. Both raised constitutional questions about the death penalty in opinions on a case narrowly focused on whether Oklahoma’s lethal injection method was legal. The high court ruled that, when carried out properly, capital punishment is constitutional. But the dissents sparked the recent momentum.
“Rather than try to patch up the death penalty’s legal wounds one at a time, I would ask for full a briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution,” Breyer wrote in his dissent.
Seeing the remarks almost as an invitation, activists mobilized and cast about for the strongest petitioner, and they decided on Shonda Walter.
“It’s not that the death penalty is morally reprehensive, although a lot of people think it is. It’s that the death penalty has so many problems to it that it can’t be done in a constitutional manner,” said Marc Bookman, who heads the Philadelphia-based Atlantic Center for Capital Representation. “Shonda Walter, in many ways, typifies the problems with the death penalty.”
Attorney: Executions ‘no longer comport’ with modern values
In April 2005, Walter was sentenced to death for killing her elderly neighbor by striking him repeatedly with a hatchet.
Two years earlier, Walter of Lock Haven walked over to the home of the victim, 83-year-old James Sementelli, bent on killing and robbing him. It was part of an initiation, authorities said, to join the Bloods street gang.
What happened next, prosecutors argued, underscored how callous and petty the murder was: she sat in Sementelli’s house and watched television and ate ice cream following the lethal bludgeoning. Then she drove away in his car. Shortly after, Walter returned and stole $510 in quarters from the World War II veteran’s home.
But now, Walter’s new defense team say her trial lawyers ill-served her. For instance, at one point, they admitted to the jury that “there was no way” she was not guilty.
More than contending that she had lousy attorneys, though, is the heart of Walter’s petition, which has a more philosophical thrust.
“Whether, in all cases, the imposition of a sentence of death violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments,” her Philadelphia attorney Dan Silverman wrote.
It’s not, Bookman said, that advocates think what Walter did was not an appalling act.
“All first-degree murders are terrible crimes,” Bookman said. “But the question goes beyond the facts of her case. We don’t keep a failed public policy in place because of the visceral facts that may offend us. The alternative is not that Shonda Walter goes free. The alternative is that she spends the rest of her life in prison.”
In an emailed statement, Walter’s attorney Silverman further said, “We’re hopeful the court will recognize that the death penalty no longer comports with our values as a nation, and end the practice once and for all.”
On Friday, the high court rescheduled a meeting to discuss whether to take up the case. Four of the nine justices must agree to hear Walter’s petition for the case to go before them.
“From this point on, people will be bringing this allegation that the death penalty violates the Eight Amendment,” Bookman said. “If the Supreme Court doesn’t decide to take any action in Shonda Walter, there’s going to be a number of other opportunities.”
Meanwhile in the commonwealth, executions remain on hold.
Pennsylvania hasn’t put an inmate to death since 1999 and only has executed three inmates since 1976. Still, there are 179 men and two women on death row, according to the state’s Department of Corrections. It’s one of the largest death-row populations in the country.
Gov. Tom Wolf is intent on shrinking the number of people on death row; some have been awaiting execution for decades. In December, the state’s high court backed Wolf’s move to halt executions in Pennsylvania and issue reprieves, citing flaws with the system.
Despite challenges from Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams and Attorney General Kathleen Kane, the effective moratorium will remain in place until a legislative commission that’s been studying the issue for four years presents its report to the governor sometime this year.
In response to the state’s high court backing Wolf’s moratorium, Williams’ Office said that it extends condolences to the victims of horrendous crimes “who will not soon see justice that was imposed by the jury and upheld by the courts.”