Meet 6 (OK, Maybe 5) Reasons Why Tom Wolf Is Right About the Death Penalty

Former PA death row inmates freed before their executions could be carried out.

The death penalty debate has flared up again in Pennsylvania, thanks to the death penalty moratorium issued by Governor Tom Wolf on February 13th. And there are many arguments against state-sponsored execution: It’s barbaric; it unfairly targets minorities; it’s not actually a deterrent to crime; and it can cost more than life imprisonment. But the single most convincing argument I’ve heard is this:

What if the government executes an innocent person?

Nationally, there have been at least 150 people who were released before being executed, some released as a result of previously unavailable DNA evidence and some due to massively botched trials with egregious prosecutorial misconduct.

Here in Pennsylvania, where there are currently 186 people sitting on death row, there have been six death row inmates freed before the state could kill them. These are their stories.

1. Harold Wilson

Harold Wilson, left, in 2007. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Harold Wilson, left, in 2007. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The Crime: In 1988, 64-year-old Dorothy Sewell and two others were hacked to death with an axe inside Sewell’s home near 25th and Dickinson streets in South Philadelphia. 30-year-old Harold Wilson, who lived nearby, turned up at a friend’s house within hours of the killings with an envelope full of money and cuts on his hands, and police later found a blood-spattered jacket in his home.

The Trial: It turned out that Wilson was, in fact, in Sewell’s home to buy cocaine, so he was no angel. He was also black, and Assistant District Attorney Jack McMahon did his best to keep black people off of the jury. (If you’ve never seen McMahon’s training video, in which explains to new ADAs how to exclude black people from juries, watch it below.) The jury convicted Wilson of the triple murder.

The Aftermath: Wilson won his first major victory a full decade after his conviction, when his sentence was overturned due to inadequate defense counsel. Later, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered a new hearing to look into McMahon’s racial exclusion in jury selection, and a different court later ruled that the prosecutor had acted improperly and that Wilson should get a new trial. A second trial resulted in a mistrial, but a third jury exonerated Wilson, in large part because of newly available DNA evidence. In 2004, Wilson filed a federal civil suit against the city and pretty much everyone involved in the case, and that suit continues to wind its way through court.

2. Nicholas Yarris

Nicholas Yarris in 2006. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

Nicholas Yarris in 2006. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

The Crime: Back in 1981, a young woman was abducted, raped and murdered in Delaware County. Within days of the murder, 19-year-old drug addict Nicholas Yarris was pulled over in a stolen car. The stop turned violent, and Yarris was arrested after the cop’s gun went off in the scuffle. Then Yarris decided to do something incredibly stupid: He gave the cops false information about the murder he actually knew nothing about in an attempt to get out of jail. The plan backfired, he made even more of an enemy of the police, and he wound up getting charged with abduction, rape and murder.

The Trial: A friend of the victim also ID’d Yarris as a man who had been harassing the girl. Prosecutors also used a jailhouse informant’s testimony and the fact that the rape kit didn’t exclude Yarris to get a conviction on the charges. He was sentenced to die. That was 1982. Yarris tells Philadelphia magazine that his treatment while on death row was nothing short of barbaric: “I was placed in the disciplinary units used for inmates who were out of control. I was made to gladiator for the amusement of the guards, was myself stabbed and assaulted many times… I was severely beaten for escaping from prison by guards who were ordered to make an example of me. They broke my teeth and detached my left retina.”

The Aftermath: 21 years after his conviction, Yarris was released from a Pennsylvania prison once DNA evidence unavailable at the time of his conviction exonerated him. Yarris later wrote a book about his experience, 7 Days to Live. He is married and now lives in Los Angeles. In 2008, he won a multi-million dollar settlement in a malicious prosecution lawsuit he filed in 2004.

3. Neil Ferber

The Crime: On May 27, 1981, Greek mobster Steven Bouras was having dinner with Jerry Blavat and others at Meletis, a restaurant that was near 8th and Catharine streets. As they were eating, masked gunmen walked in and opened fire, killing Bouras and his girlfriend. As the killers ran out of the restaurant, one exposed his face. Cops fingered 39-year-old Kensington resident Neil Ferber, a small-time criminal, for the murder.

The Trial: The strongest evidence that prosecutors produced was the testimony of a criminal named Gerald Jordan, who shared a cell with Ferber at one point after Ferber was arrested for killing Bouras. Jordan testified that Ferber told him he had been hired to make the hit. There was also a composite sketch supposedly produced from witnesses who saw an unmasked Ferber leaving the restaurant. He was convicted easily and sentenced to die in the electric chair.

The Aftermath: The best decision Ferber’s family ever made in their lives was hiring attorney Denis Cogan to handle the case following the conviction. Cogan, who saw major holes in the case, relentlessly pursued the pre-trial motions. The turning point was when Cogan received a call from the head of Philadelphia’s Organized Crime Task Force, who told him that an informant claimed that police had the wrong man. Then Cogan learned that Jordan — the jailhouse witness — had failed a lie-detector test. And then Jordan failed another one. As for that composite sketch, it was later determined that the police drew the sketch based on a previous arrest photo of Ferber and not from eyewitness testimony. The conviction was quickly overturned. Ferber died in 2008.

4. William Nieves

William Nieves in 2000. (AP Photo/Ed Bailey)

William Nieves in 2000. (AP Photo/Ed Bailey)

The Crime: Drug dealer Eric McAiley was shot outside his Philadelphia home in December of 1992. Police said that Nieves and McAiley left a bar together and that Nieves shot him in the back three times after McAiley exited the car they had been riding in together. Nieves and McAiley had been involved in the drug business together, and police arrested Nieves for the murder.

The Trial: Prosecutors relied on the testimony of a prostitute, who claimed she saw Nieves shoot McAiley, and a jailhouse informant, who said he was at the bar and overheard Nieves tell McAiley, “Better get me my fucking money… I’m not playing with you.” Nieves was convicted for the killing and sentenced to death.

The Aftermath: It would be a gross understatement to say that Nieves’ legal representation was inadequate. The attorney had never handled a death penalty case and offered little defense of his client. On that basis, Nieves scored a new trial. At the new trial, he was represented by none other than Jack McMahon. Yes, the same Jack McMahon who successfully prosecuted Harold Wilson. In 2000, a jury acquitted Nieves thanks to new evidence turned up by McMahon. But in the end, the justice system still found a way to take Nieves’ life. He died in 2005 from liver failure, which he claimed was a result of Hepatitis C that was improperly treated while he was in prison. Nieves spent his five years of freedom speaking out against the death penalty.

5. Thomas Kimbell, Jr.

The Crime: In 1994, 34-year-old Bonnie Lou Dryfuse, her two young children and a young cousin were murdered inside her home in Western Pennsylvania. They were stabbed a combined 64 times. Though Dryfuse’s husband was originally a suspect, it was their crack-addict neighbor Kimbell who was arrested and charged with the horrific murders.

The Trial: There was absolutely no physical evidence tying Kimbell to the slaughter. But there were witnesses who said he had been near the scene of the crime just prior to the murders. And the prosecution also presented testimony from three jailhouses snitches, who claimed that Kimbell had admitted to the crimes. A jury convicted him of four counts of first-degree murder and sentenced him to die.

The Aftermath: Two years after Kimbell was convicted, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the decision, because the judge in the original case barred evidence that would have cast doubts about Kimbell’s involvement in the crimes. At a new trial, Kimbell’s defense team presented evidence that suggested that Dryfuse’s husband may have been the real killer (he has never been charged with the crime). And one of the jailhouse informants recanted and said he had been pressured into his previous testimony. The new jury acquitted Kimbell on all charges in 2002. But his interaction with police wasn’t over. He has since pleaded guilty to drug charges on at least two separate occasions.

6. Jay C. Smith

The Crime: In the summer of 1979, police found the naked and badly beaten body of Main Line schoolteacher Susan Reinert in the trunk of her car, in a case that would become known as the Main Line Murders. Reinert’s two children — Michael, 10, and Karen, 11 — could not be found, and they remain missing to this day. Reinert’s boyfriend, William Bradfield, was later arrested for the crime and convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in 1983. (He died in prison.) But police suspected that another person was involved and eventually arrested Smith, who, at the time of the murders, was the principal of the Upper Merion school where Bradfield and Reinert taught.

The Trial: Smith’s life story is a bit bizarre by school principal standards. He had been convicted on firearms charges and robbing a Sears. And Smith’s own daughter and son-in-law disappeared in 1978 and were never found. While Bradfield had been convicted of conspiracy, prosecutors believed that it was Smith who did the actual killing. There was circumstantial evidence to tie Smith to the crime, and prosecutors argued that he killed Reinert and her children in his basement. Two of Bradfield’s friends testified that Smith had told them he intended to kill Reinert. The jury agreed, and Smith received the death penalty.

The Aftermath: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 1992. The court found that the prosecution withheld evidence in the case. The justices also said that the original judge shouldn’t have allowed the testimony of Bradfield’s friends, which amounted to hearsay. Typically, this would all have resulted in another trial, but the Supreme Court wouldn’t allow it in this case, because they determined that the prosecutors’ behavior was so egregious. The Supreme Court freed Smith and said he could never be retried for the crime. But Smith never shook the suspicion that he did commit the murders, and he lost several lawsuits he filed over his conviction. The crime became the subject of several books, including Echoes in the Darkness by Joseph Wambaugh, who firmly believed in Smith’s guilt. Smith took the truth with him to the grave when he died in Wilkes-Barre in 2009. In an obituary that appeared in the New York Times, Wambaugh wrote: “I do not celebrate the death of any man, but Satan does. A No. 1 draft pick has finally arrived.”

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