Death-row inmate Hubert Michael Jr. will be executed soon, DA Kearney predicts

November 11, 2012

BELLEFONTE — Condemned killer Hubert Lester Michael Jr.’s temporary stay of execution won’t save him from being put to death by lethal injection, York County District Attorney Tom Kearney said.

“I believe it will happen in a relatively short window of time,” he said. “I think we’re going to get there — for the (victim’s) family and for the community. This is a temporary speed bump.”

Michael was to die at 7 p.m. Thursday, but the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay of execution that returns the case to U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III. The Third Circuit wants Jones to explain why he denied Michael’s request to keep fighting his death sentence, but then issued what’s called a “certificate of appealability.”


Trista Eng

at issue: Michael’s attorneys with the Federal Community Defender Office and the state attorney general’s Office then have 14 days to address their issues — all at once, Kearney said.

Kearney said language in opinions by Jones and in an unrelated case by the state Supreme Court seems to indicate federal appellate judges in Pennsylvania are frustrated by federal community defenders, who litigate death-row cases bit by bit.

“Delay is winning,” he said.

Jones addressed it directly in his order denying Michael a stay:

“Indeed, to grant the relief requested by the petitioner would make the case a monumental example of the seemingly endless and oft-criticized federal habeas practice. Over 19 years after the heinous murder the petitioner has admitted committing, it is time to draw this affair to a close.”

Hard on family: The family of 16-year-old murder victim Trista Eng wants the sentence carried out, although all have had different reactions to the decades of delays, Kearney said.

“It’s got to be terrible for them,” he said. “I have to believe that this is an emotional roller coaster no one deserves.”

He described Suzanna Eng, Trista’s mother, as a remarkable woman, “resolute in her determination tsee justice for her daughter.”

At Michael’s clemency hearing Wednesday, Trista’s siblings “spoke of their relationship with their sister, and all that she has missed,” Kearney said.

Trista’s brother and sister expressed frustration toward the system, he said, and her brother told the board he hates Michael, according to Kearney.

“The attorney general’s office and our office will do everything we can to make sure the will of the community is carried forth,” he said.

SCOTUS: Despite the stay of execution, Michael, Trista’s family, prison officials and media spent tense hours Thursday at Rockview state prison near State College, waiting to hear whether the U.S. Supreme Court would grant prosecutors’ emergency motion to halt

This is the “execution complex” at Rockview state prison, near State College, where death-row inmates are executed. Three inmates have been put to death since Pa. reinstituted the death penalty in 1972. (Courtesy of Pa. Dept. of Corrections) the Third Circuit’s stay.

But that motion was denied, according to Nils Frederiksen, spokesman for the state attorney general’s office.

It was about 8:30 p.m. Thursday when the denial was announced, ending the wait and sending Eng’s family, the media and a handful of death-penalty protesters back home.

Waited quietly:All day Thursday and into Thursday night, Michael remained in Rockview’s execution holding cell, reading a Bible and a newspaper and listening to the radio, according to Susan McNaughton, press secretary for the state Department of Corrections.

He did not write or dictate a final statement, she said.

Although the execution was set for 7 p.m., the death warrant signed by Gov. Tom Corbett remained in effect until midnight, McNaughton said, and the execution could have begun as late as 11:59 p.m.

Had the execution happened, Michael would have been handcuffed before walking the 20 feet from the holding cell to the execution chamber under escort by six corrections officers, McNaughton said.

Police escort: Michael arrived at Rockview at 6:09 Thursday morning from Greene state prison under police escort, according to McNaughton, and he will now be returned to Greene. Rockview is the only state prison designated to handle executions.

He was visited by his spiritual adviser and one of his attorneys, she said, but no family members.

Michael’s attorneys have declined interviews, but released a statement Thursday afternoon:

“On behalf of Hubert Michael, we are extremely pleased that the federal Court of Appeals has granted (him) a stay of execution. Mr. Michael has suffered from debilitating mental conditions throughout his life. Mr. Michael has compelling legal claims in his case which have never been reviewed by any court. The Court of Appeals recognized that there are complicated issues involved in this case that should be carefully considered.”

13 years: Had the execution happened, Michael, 56, formerly of Lemoyne, would have been the first murderer put to death in Pennsylvania in 13 years, and the fourth inmate executed since 1972, when the state reinstituted the death penalty.

The three men executed since 1972 had all willingly given up appeals and weren’t fighting their death sentences.

It’s the third death warrant Pennsylvania governors have signed for Michael. The first two were in 1996 and 2004. Both times, his execution was stayed.

For years, Michael maintained he wanted to die, but he changed his mind in 2004, just days before his scheduled execution.

His attorneys argue he was not mentally competent when he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder on Oct. 11, 1994, and didn’t challenge his death sentence.

They’ve also said Michael suffered from mental-health issues while he was held in Graterford state prison, but that those issues improved when he was transferred to Greene state prison.

Now that his mental health has improved, Michael is fighting his death sentence.

The background: Michael told his former defense attorney, York County chief public defender Bruce Blocher, he offered Trista a ride as she was walking to her job at Hardee’s in Dillsburg on July 12, 1993.

She accepted, at which point he kidnapped her, drove to to state game lands in Warrington Township and raped and killed her, according to testimony from Blocher at an appeals hearing in 1997.

Michael fled the state 10 days later. At the time, he was free on bail for a Lancaster County rape charge.

Captured: He was captured July 27, 1993, in Utah. Police found the murder weapon in the car he was using, officials said.

He was charged with homicide in late August 1993, after Trista’s body was found by his own family members. Michael had confessed the murder to his brother.

In November 1993, Michael escaped from Lancaster County Prison but was captured in New Orleans in March 1994, according to the Department of Corrections.

He was later sentenced to 10 to 20 years for the Lancaster County rape, according to court records.

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