DA supports death penalty, but not adamantly

DA supports death penalty, but not adamantly

By Nicole C. Brambila, December 14, 2015

Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams slipped into Judge Scott D.
Keller’s courtroom to hear how the case was progressing.

On trial was 41-year-old Michael A. Wilkins, who faced the death penalty
for the retaliatory killing of two drug dealers who had ripped him off in a
fake cocaine deal, and the torture and murder of a witness who was set on
fire and her body dumped.

The jury came back with a guilty verdict. But instead of sentencing Wilkins
in June to death, the jury gave him life in prison.

Adams also sought the death penalty in the triple homicides for Wilkins’
younger brother, Maurice Wilkins, 35. In October, the younger Wilkins
pleaded guilty to the murders and received a life sentence in a deal in
which prosecutors dropped the death penalty.

Although he has steadfastly supported capital punishment in the
commonwealth and opposed Gov. Tom Wolf’s moratorium on executions, Adams
says he is not a death penalty zealot. And his reaction to the Wilkinses’
cases seems to support that.

“I’m just as happy with a life sentence as I am a death sentence,” Adams
said.

“I am satisfied that they will be incarcerated,” Adams said of the Wilkins
brothers. “They will not be a threat to our community ever again. And
frankly, community safety is the utmost of my concerns. Whether they’re on
death row or serving a life sentence, I’m fine with that.”

Seeking death less and less

Adams, who took office in 2008 as a Democratic write-in candidate, has
sought the death penalty six times and has two more pending.

Berks juries issued death sentences in two of the cases: to Albert Perez
for the 2008 murders of his ex-girlfriend and her 5-year-old daughter, made
to look like a murder-suicide; and to Glenn Lyons for the 2008 stabbing
death of a Lebanon County woman with whom he’d been having an affair.

A third man sentenced to death since Adams took office, convicted cop
killer Cletus C. Rivera, was prosecuted by the state attorney general’s
office.

More than half of the 11 men sentenced to death and currently on death row
from Berks were prosecuted under former District Attorney Mark C. Baldwin.

“It’s a penalty I rarely seek,” Adams said. “I could seek it a lot more.”

During the height of the tough-on-crime era, juries in the commonwealth
were sentencing a dozen or more inmates to death each year, peaking in 1994
before dropping precipitously. Pennsylvania’s statistics mirror what’s been
happening in the U.S.

Fewer than a half-dozen defendants each year this decade have been
sentenced to death.

“I think you will find throughout Pennsylvania that we are seeking it less
and less, and I think that’s good,” said Adams noting the reason is because
prosecutors are being more judicious.

Still, with 181 condemned inmates, Pennsylvania has the fifth largest death
row in the nation.

State law provides for capital punishment for first-degree murder, or an
intentional killing, with 18 aggravating circumstances that include when
the victim was a witness, a child under the age of 12, pregnant, tortured
or held hostage as well as for police officers, among others.

‘I want to be fair and just’

Adams is uniquely situated to oversee the county’s prosecution of death
penalty cases.

Before becoming the county’s top law enforcer, Adams was a defense
attorney.

While in private practice, Adams defended two of the county’s death row
inmates, Roderick Johnson, convicted for the 1996 drug-related slayings of
two cousins, and David A. Sattazahn, sentenced for the 1987 Palm Sunday
murder of a restaurant manager.

But of all the accused he’s prosecuted and defended, the case that haunts
him the most is as interesting as it is telling: Edward Cruz Goudy.

Goudy rejected a plea agreement for a seven-year sentence in 2003 and was
given life for his role as a get-away driver in a convenience store robbery
and murder. Goudy had no prior criminal record. He was 15 at the time of
the murder.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court found in Miller v. Alabama that sentencing
schemes mandating life in prison without parole for defendants who
committed crimes as a juvenile amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and
were unconstitutional because the young have both a diminished culpability
and a heightened capacity for change.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, however, ruled the newly recognized right
does not apply retroactively.

Had Goudy, now 30, been persuaded as a teen to accept the plea agreement,
he would have been out of prison by now. Instead he is serving a life
sentence at the State Correctional Institution at Coal Township in
Northumberland County.

The Goudy case is a lesson Adams has carried with him into the prosecutor’s
office. The way Adams sees it, his job isn’t about just getting a
conviction.

“I want to be fair and just,” Adams said. “As a prosecutor, I need to make
sure we have the appropriate controls to prevent an injustice also.”

Berks Senior Judge Linda K.M. Ludgate agreed, adding Adams hasn’t lost his
common sense. “The job is not to win cases,” Ludgate said. “The job is to ensure justice
is done.”

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