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Slayings might qualify as death penalty case

August 03, 2006|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - The case of a Mercersburg, Pa., man wanted in the killings of his estranged wife and a neighbor might qualify for prosecution under Pennsylvania's death penalty law, according to aggravating circumstances in the statute cited by Franklin County District Attorney John F. Nelson.

Curtis Eugene Burkett, 41, remained at large Wednesday as Pennsylvania State Police continued to concentrate their efforts on the southwest portion of Franklin County, Cpl. Gary Carter said. Burkett is charged with two counts of criminal homicide in the July 28 shooting deaths of Cathy Burkett, 39, at her Garnes Road home and William Zimmerman, 50, his neighbor at the Longview Campground.

Under Pennsylvania law, there are 18 aggravating circumstances that can allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty in criminal homicide cases, said Nelson, who has been the district attorney for nearly two decades. While not answering questions specific to the criminal case against Burkett, Nelson did answer hypothetical questions regarding the death penalty statute.

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The commission of multiple homicides is an aggravating circumstance, Nelson said. Someone who commits a homicide in the course of violating a protection from abuse order could also face the death penalty, he said.

There was an active protection from abuse order against Burkett at the time he allegedly killed his wife, according to court records. He had been charged with a PFA violation July 21, one week before the killings, when he also was charged by state police with simple assault against his wife at the campground, court records stated.

A PFA violation was cited as an aggravating circumstance in the criminal homicide case of Bruce B. Forsythe, who killed his estranged wife, Joanna R. Plummer, at his Marion, Pa., home in November 2002. However, Forsythe later pleaded no contest to third-degree murder and was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison.

Killing a witness in a criminal case also can be an aggravating circumstance if the case is a felony, Nelson said. While Cathy Burkett and Zimmerman could have both been witnesses in the simple assault case, however, the simple assault charge was a misdemeanor, according to court records.

A person who "knowingly creates a grave risk of death to another person in addition to the victim" could also face the death penalty, Nelson said, quoting the law. Zimmerman was in a pickup truck seated next to a girl when he was shot in the chest, police said.

Whether a person "knowingly" puts another person at risk of death in the course of killing someone else is a matter of determining the suspect's state of mind, he said.

Aggravating circumstances only come into play in the penalty phase of a capital case for someone convicted of first-degree murder, according to the law.

Burkett was scheduled to appear in Franklin County Court Wednesday for an indirect criminal contempt hearing on the July 21 PFA violation. To the surprise of no one, Burkett failed to show up, but Sheriff Robert Wollyung did take the precaution of having additional armed personnel inside the courthouse entrance where people pass through the metal detector.

Carter said Wednesday that several troopers on each shift are still being assigned specifically to search for Burkett and follow up on leads. Pennsylvania and Maryland state police helicopters also continuing to canvass the area, looking to spot the experienced outdoorsman's 1980s Ford F-150 with its camouflage paint scheme, he said.

"We really can't say right now. There's nothing that draws us to that conclusion," Carter said when asked if the investigation indicated Burkett had done extensive planning before the killings. He said police had no knowledge whether Burkett, who is hearing impaired and worked at Frick Co. in Waynesboro, Pa., had access to another vehicle or had a large amount of cash on him at the time of the killings.

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