The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

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November 8, 2012

In final hours today, lawyers try to block Pennsylvania execution

HARRISBURG — Condemned murderer Hubert L. Michael Jr. is running out of options as the hours until his scheduled execution - set for 7 p.m. today -  melt away.

Michael's lawyers hope the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia will reverse at least one of two requests for stays of execution rejected by federal judges in Harrisburg.

And there's a possibility, however slim, that they could turn around Wednesday's 4-0 decision by the state Pardons Board not to recommend clemency for Michael and persuade the governor to grant it.

If his lawyers are unsuccessful, Michael is expected to be put to death by lethal injection this evening in a converted field hospital at Rockview State Prison in Bellefonte for the shooting death of 16-year-old Trista Elizabeth Eng in south-central Pennsylvania in 1993.

The execution is scheduled to take place at 7 p.m., but the death warrant that Gov. Tom Corbett signed is good until midnight. Legal maneuvering to stop the procedure could delay the execution or force it to be postponed to a future date.

Michael pleaded guilty to murdering Eng after kidnapping her in York County. At a 1997 hearing, his former public defender testified that Michael told him how he picked up the girl hitchhiking, bound her with electrical cord stolen from her home, raped her and killed her in state game lands.

He was not charged with rape, although prosecutors suspected it, because of a lack of physical evidence. Michael confessed to his brother, who located her remains about a month after she disappeared, and called police. She had been shot in the head and chest.

At Wednesday's pardons board hearing, the victim's mother, Suzanne Eng, set the tone for relatives and friends who made emotional pleas to keep the execution on track.

"He kidnapped her, he raped her and then he executed her," the mother said. "As she begged him not to kill her, he shot her three times."

The way Pennsylvania carries out its death penalty, from the training of the lethal-injection team members to the types of drugs used, is under scrutiny in a 5-year-old class-action suit pending in federal court in Harrisburg.

Also under a microscope is the Corrections Department's policy dictating how much of the execution procedure witnesses should be allowed to watch.

U.S. District Judge Yvette Kane ruled Wednesday that the department cannot use curtains or any other method to prevent witnesses from seeing and hearing all of what transpires in Michael's execution.

Kane sided with two newspapers in issuing a preliminary injunction requiring that witnesses be allowed "full visual and auditory observation" of what goes on.

State prison rules allow six members of the media to witness executions, along with prison officials, six citizens, four victims' representatives and the inmate's spiritual adviser.

The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Patriot-News of Harrisburg argue that they have a First Amendment right to view executions as a surrogate for the public, and that the ability to witness the entire execution is essential to thorough reporting on the process.

Previously, officials have used curtains to block witnesses' view of the death chamber until after an intravenous line is inserted, again if it is necessary to physically check the inmate's consciousness after the first of three drugs is administered and finally when the coroner examines the inmate after the injections are completed.

 

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