Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf announced Friday that her office will seek the death penalty against Alex Torres-Santos over Tuesday’s triple murder in Lebanon city.
The District Attorney’s Office filed a Notice of Aggravating Circumstances, a statutorily mandated step in cases where prosecution intends to seek the death penalty.
“In my fourteen years as a Lebanon County prosecutor and in my nearly four years as the District Attorney, we have not filed a death penalty notice in any case,” said DA Hess Graf in a press release. “No other murder committed during my time as the D.A. has risen to the specific legal standard necessary to seek death for the killer. This case meets that standard.”
Prior to that, the late former District Attorney David Arnold filed a similar death penalty notice in the 2008 case against Kevin Mitchell over the death of his infant daughter. Arnold would also have reportedly sought the death penalty against Jonathan Eisenhauer in 2011 for killing his wife. (Mitchell was ultimately sentenced to life without parole, while Eisenhauer avoided the possibility of the death penalty by pleading guilty.)
22-year-old Torres-Santos and James Fernandez-Reyes, a 16-year-old juvenile who is being charged as an adult, were arrested on Wednesday and charged with criminal homicide in the Tuesday evening triple murder of two children and a teenager on Lebanon’s north side. A third suspect remains at large.
Court documents have indicated that in an interview with police, Torres-Santos admitted to being present for the shooting, but claimed that Fernandez-Reyes and the other unidentified male were responsible for the firing of guns into the rear of the N. 5th street multi-unit dwellings.
8-year-old Jesus Perez-Salome, his 9-year-old brother, Sebastian Perez-Salome, and 19-year-old Joshua Lugo-Perez were killed in the shooting. A fourth victim, 33-year-old Luis Cancel, was injured in the shootings. At last word, Cancel remained hospitalized.
In a trial for murder of the first degree, there is a two-step process for seeking the death penalty. The first is that the jury returns a guilty verdict. The second is that, during the sentencing hearing, prosecutors must demonstrate that evidence concerning the victim and the impact that the death of the victim has had on the family of the victim meets a standard of “aggravating or mitigating circumstances.”
According to the judicial code, one of these circumstances is that the victim was a child under 12 years of age. Another is that the crime presented a grave risk of death to another person in addition to the victim of the offense. Both circumstances were cited by Hess Graf in the Notice of Aggravating Circumstances, according to the press release.
The same jury that issued the guilty verdict would then determine if the defendant’s sentence is life imprisonment or death. However, these processes are usually punctuated by post-trial motions and do not happen in immediate succession. In the event that the jury decides on death, the sentence would be subject to automatic review by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
A sentence of death shall be subject to automatic review by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania pursuant, which can either uphold the sentence or vacate for life imprisonment. The case may also go through a federal appeals process.
After the state Supreme Court has upheld a death sentence and all appeals have been settled, the case then goes to the Governor’s Office, where ultimately the Governor must sign an Execution Warrant or Governor’s Warrant to set a date for the execution. All executions in the state are carried out at SCI Rockview.
Gov. Josh Shapiro has stated that he will not issue any Execution Warrants during his term. In a February speech announcing his decision, Gov. Shapiro said that when he was elected as state Attorney General, he believed that the death penalty was a just punishment for the most heinous crimes, but that when the first capital cases came to his desk, he found himself “repeatedly unwilling to seek the death penalty.”
“When my son asked me why it as OK to kill someone as a punishment for killing someone, I couldn’t look him in the eye and explain why,” said Shapiro.
Shapiro also referenced the 2018 Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh, and said that he was moved by members of the Tree of Life community telling him that they did not want the killer put to death.
“I have painstakingly considered every aspect of Pennsylvania’s capital sentencing system, reflected on my own conscience, and weighed the tremendous responsibilities I have as Governor,” said Shapiro in the speech at Mosaic Community Church in West Philadelphia. “And I am here today in this Church to tell you I will not issue any execution warrants during my term as Governor.”
Shapiro also urged the state legislature to abolish the death penalty.
With his speech, Shapiro upheld a precedent established by his predecessor, Gov. Tom Wolf, who also imposed an effective moratorium on the death penalty by granting a reprieve each time a death row inmate is scheduled for execution.
The most recent capital punishment in Pennsylvania occurred in July 1999 when Gary Heidnik was killed by lethal injection at SCI Rockview. Heidnik was only the third individual executed by the state since the death penalty was reinstated by the United States Supreme Court in 1976 through Gregg v. Georgia. More than 100 individuals are currently on the state’s execution list, some who were sentenced more than 30 years ago.
Hess Graf acknowledged that many remain critical of the death penalty in today’s world, and that the process is lengthy and costly.
“To those who second guess today’s decision, we did not make it easily nor did we take the decision lightly,” said Hess Graf in the release. “There are some crimes–crimes like this one where young children were shot to death outside of their home as they innocently played with their kittens–that demand we charge accordingly.”
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