Luzerne County councilman challenges DA’s pursuit of death penalty cases

By Jennifer Learn-Andes -
Urban -
Salavantis -

Faced with an additional funding request for a death-penalty case, Luzerne County Councilman Stephen A. Urban questioned the district attorney’s decision to pursue the option when an execution is unlikely.

“I just don’t understand the mentality of the district attorney. Knowing that the governor usually is not going to sign that warrant, why do they pursue the death penalty when there are all these expenses associated with it?” Urban asked during Tuesday’s work session.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has imposed a moratorium on the death penalty, Urban said. The state’s last execution took place in 1999.

The subject came up during Chief Public Defender Steven Greenwald’s request for an $80,000 transfer from the county’s 2018 budget reserve to cover the cost of expert witnesses in defending 51-year-old Joseph John Marchetti.

District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis, who was not at the work session, said Wednesday she has an obligation to seek the death penalty if certain factors are met.

“It is the law, and I follow the law,” Salavantis said.

The moratorium issued by the governor is not a law, Salavantis said. And while she insists she strives to save tax dollars when possible, Salavantis said her primary focus must be seeking justice.

“I can’t make decisions based on the cost of prosecuting or defending the case,” she said.

Her office filed notice last month of its plans to seek the death penalty against Marchetti, who is accused of beating and shooting to death his girlfriend, Antoinette Wilkinson, 46, inside their Foster Township home Jan. 28.

Marchetti also is accused of beating his girlfriend’s 72-year-old mother, Barbara Wilkinson, with a lead-filled club before shooting himself in the face. The mother survived.

Prosecutors alleged two aggravating circumstances make Marchetti’s case a capital one: That he also created a grave risk of death to the elder Wilkinson and engaged in torture in the killing of her daughter.

Prosecutors this month also filed notice they will seek the death penalty for 35-year-old Anthony Spudis, who is charged in the 2013 slaying of 97-year-old Gertrude Price inside her Nanticoke residence. Investigators allege Spudis entered Price’s house through a basement window intending to ransack the property but instead stabbed Price several times in the head when she confronted him.

This case qualified for the death penalty because Spudis allegedly killed Price during the commission of a felony — robbery and burglary, prosecutors said in their filing.

Marchetti and Spudis have both pleaded not guilty.

“I have the ability by law to seek the death penalty with aggravating factors, and these cases have met those factors,” Salavantis said, declining further comment due to a court-imposed gag order on both cases.

Prosecutors sometimes use the death penalty as a bargaining chip to obtain a life sentence plea, which could save the time and expense of a trial.

A gubernatorial change also is possible. Wolf, a Democrat, is seeking re-election this year and will face GOP nominee Scott Wagner in November. Wagner has said he would pursue a mandatory death penalty for school shooters, although legal analysts say that’s unconstitutional, according to published reports.

Pending transfer

Council is set to vote on the Marchetti case budget transfer June 12.

Greenwald said he reduced his initial $100,000 request because he later learned the likely mitigation expert will cost less than anticipated.

Mitigation experts are specially trained to perform extensive background reviews of defendants to present reasons why a jury may not deem the accused worthy of the death penalty.

Although a trial for Marchetti is unlikely this year, the bulk of the mitigation work would be completed in 2018, the public defender said. Greenwald listed other experts who may be needed: a physician, psychiatrist, toxicologist, pathologist, neuropsychologist, criminologist and specialists in jury selection, computer forensics, ballistics and fingerprints.

Greenwald did not seek additional funding for the Spudis case because the defense has been assigned to conflict counsel, which steps in when the public defender’s office has a conflict of interest.

Conflict counsel defense costs for death penalty cases must be funded through the county court budget, county Manager C. David Pedri said Wednesday.

County Court Administrator Michael Shucosky said the court is not asking county council for additional funding because the expense should be covered by a $100,000 court budget allocation for expert witnesses and counsel fees.

In capital cases, county judges require conflict counsel to file petitions justifying the requested hiring of experts and estimated costs, Shucosky said. Judges often set spending caps and mandate detailed billing before invoices are paid, he said.

This paperwork is usually sealed before a case is adjudicated but unsealed afterward for transparency on how the money was spent, said Shucosky.



By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.