The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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March 1, 2014

Death appeals drag on

Last execution in Pa. was 1999

JOHNSTOWN — More than 25 years after Stephen Rex Edmiston snatched a little girl from a rural home in Clearfield County, raped and murdered her, the Huntingdon County native continues to sit in a state prison with little indication he will be put to death anytime soon.

The warrant ordering Edmiston’s execution for April 16, announced in a statement from the governor’s office earlier this month, sent federal defense attorneys to the U.S. District court in Johnstown seeking a stay.

Federal Judge Kim Gibson granted the delay because Edmiston had not exhausted all of his appeal rights at the federal level. Death penalty watchers say the delay likely will push the ultimate punishment to which he was sentenced in 1989 well into the future.

The stay, unopposed by the state attorney general’s office, was granted after defenders laid out a review of the appeal process to date, showing more opportunity for appeal at the federal level.

The Edmiston case illustrates the multiple layers of appeal that enable a death row inmate to present his case to as many courts as need to review it. This latest round begins another leg of what in Pennsylvania often turns into a lifetime wait for the families of victims of heinous crimes.

The process in what many view as never-ending appeals and the decades of waiting is hard on the victim’s family and is one reason Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan discusses the death penalty option in depth with families before reaching any decision.

“I review every case, and I look at the aggravating and the mitigating circumstances, and I get input from the victim’s family,” she said. “Basically for me, I’m going to follow the law. If the aggravating circumstances are there, I’m going to seek the death penalty, but I also consider what the family wants.”

Callihan said she makes it clear that the appeals process can drag on for years.

“Sometimes they feel life in prison is a harder road than death,” she said.

“My take on the death penalty is that I think there are a lot of people who don’t understand there are very few situations in which we can actually seek it,” Callihan said. “Most cases fall into a gray area, and you’ve got to make sure it is something you can prove.”

The state provides 18 aggravating circumstances under which the death penalty can be sought. The murders must be combined with felony crimes such as bank robbery, killing a child younger than 12, or a firefighter, police officer or judge.

“Some of them are really no-brainers,” she said.

Most of the other aggravating circumstances for death penalty consideration are what Scott Lilly, as assistant district attorney who heads up Callihan’s appellate division, terms “obscure reasons.”

Cambria County President Judge Timothy Creany said one aggravating circumstance often considered is torture. Was the victim tortured in the time leading up to his or her death?

All death and dying, especially murder, is torture, but it can often be difficult to prove.

In 2006, Cambria County prosecutors announced they would seek the death penalty in the case of two-time killer Nathan Fortson in the kidnapping and strangulation/throat slashing death of Velda Malloy of Cambria Township.

He also was charged in the Huntingdon County slaying of Dale Zunich of Altoona.

The push for the death penalty was largely because of the fear and agony Malloy went through as she rode around in the trunk of Fortson’s car for hours, those close to the case said late last week.

But the case never went to trial after Fortson entered guilty pleas in late 2006 and was sentenced to life in prison without a chance of parole.

Also part of the death law is the opportunity for defendants to present mitigating circumstances proving he or she was abused as a child or led exemplary lives prior to the crimes.

And if the factors exist, getting a jury in Cambria County in recent years to give a death sentence has become increasingly difficult, Callihan said.

“People here are pretty religious and have a hard time sitting in judgment of another,” she said.

Case in point, the death penalty trial of Mark Leach, who was 46 when he was convicted in the 2002 death of state police Trooper Joseph Sepp in an exchange of gunfire less than a block from the courthouse.

Current Cambria County Judge David Tulowitzki was the prosecutor, with assistance by Callihan and others. The process to get a jury willing to give the death penalty on a first-degree murder conviction took 30 days, Lilly said.

In fact, there have been about a dozen county prosecutors who sought the death penalty over the past several decades, and Tribune-Democrat archives show that the last time a convicted murderer was put to death for a crime in the county was the mid-1950s.

It was around Halloween in 1954 that Karen Mauk, a 6-year-old girl, was kidnapped and murdered, with her body found in St. Petka Cemetery, just outside East Conemaugh Borough.

The little girl’s neighbor, Harry Gossard, 39, confessed to the crime and was executed in June 1956.

Gossard’s execution was long before the multilayer appeals process was implemented in Pennsylvania in the 1970s. While some of the timelines have been tightened in recent years, the trip from the courtroom to execution is always long, Lilly said.

Cambria County is not alone. The last time anyone was executed in Pennsylvania was 15 years ago, when Gary Heidnik volunteered for the lethal injection, saying he was weary of the wait.

Heidnik was given two death sentences in July 1988 for murdering two women he had imprisoned at his Philadelphia home. He was executed by lethal injection on July 6, 1999.

Four years earlier, Keith Zettlemoyer was convicted in Dauphin County for the 1980 murder of a friend and was executed May 2, 1995. Three months later, Leon Jerome Moser was executed for the 1985 murders of his ex-wife and their two daughters, according to the state Department of Corrections website.

Edmiston is the last Cambria County inmate on death row.

Larry Christy, convicted of two murders in the Mainline area, had his death sentence reduced to life in prison without the chance of parole when it became apparent the courts would rule in his favor as his appeal process made its way through federal and state courts.

Ernest “Ernie” Simmons, convicted in the 1990s murder of Anna Knaze, had his status changed when an appeals court ordered a new trial and prosecutors allowed him to plead guilty to third-degree murder.

Simmons, a Philadelphia native, was expected to be given credit for time served and released, but is now back in prison on a parole violation.

In September, the state Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal filed on behalf of Simmons, saying it wants to hear more about the incident that sent him back to court on a parole violation in 2011.

Blair County continues to have three inmates on death row, including Andre Staton, convicted eight years ago in the murder of his ex-girlfriend, and more recently making news with his attack on Ebensburg attorney Tim Burns.

A former Gallitzin man, Miguel Padilla, sits on death row following his 2006 conviction for the murder of three people outside a private nightclub in Altoona.

William Wright also sits on death row for the late 1990s murder of a Blair County woman.

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