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Judge Considers Motion To Bar Execution In 2016 Wilkinsburg Killings

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA

A judge said he will "seriously" consider a motion to bar the death penalty in the case of two men accused of killing five people and an unborn baby at a Pennsylvania cookout.

Cheron Shelton, 31, and Robert Thomas, 30, are charged in the March 2016 killings in Pittsburgh's Wilkinsburg suburb. Authorities allege Thomas opened fire on one side and Shelton then gunned down victims running onto a porch for safety.

Defense attorney Michael Machen, who would represent Thomas in a penalty phase proceeding if he is convicted of first-degree murder, has asked Common Pleas Judge Edward Borkowski to bar capital punishment as unconstitutionally cruel. He cited a bipartisan commission's report concluding that the state's death penalty process is deeply flawed, with death sentences often resulting from bad lawyering or based on the county in which the crimes were committed. Defense attorneys for Shelton plan to join the motion.

Common Pleas Judge Edward Borkowski said Monday that he is seriously considering the motion, noting he had "other concerns" about the application of the death penalty in the commonwealth, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported .

The judge noted the cost of prosecuting a criminal case and then housing an inmate on death row, as well as the "impact and trauma" on jurors who must sit on capital cases.

"It's a life-changing experience," Borkowski said. "It's a whole process that's fraught with problems."

The motion also cited the report's statistics that 14 percent of Pennsylvania's inmates on death row have an IQ of 75 or below, and that 25 percent have an active mental health disorder. In addition, the report said twice as many death row inmates have been exonerated as have been executed in recent decades-- three inmates since 1962 have been put to death by waiving further appeals while six have been cleared.

Gov. Tom Wolf in February 2015 imposed a moratorium on capital punishment in Pennsylvania, saying he was awaiting the Pennsylvania Joint State Government Commission report, which was released in June.

Prosecutors have 30 days to respond to the motion.

The judge is also considering a separate motion to dismiss the charges on the alleged grounds that a detective misrepresented facts in the case. The prosecution said the misstatements weren't purposeful and don't warrant a dismissal.