WAYNESBORO, Pa. — Kevin M. Cleeves’ return to Pennsylvania this week to face criminal homicide charges begins a lengthy series of legal proceedings, one result of which could be the death penalty.
Legal experts polled by The Herald-Mail said, at first glance, the July 27 killings of three people in Quincy Township, Pa., could qualify the shooter for the state’s harshest penalty.
Cleeves, 35, of Waynesboro, is charged with three counts of criminal homicide in the shooting deaths of his wife, her boyfriend and the boyfriend’s mother. He is expected to be extradited from Ohio on Monday or Tuesday for arraignment.
It is highly unlikely any bail will be set at arraignment, according to Judy Ritter, a criminal law and criminal procedure professor from Widener Law School.
Cleeves’ case will proceed to a preliminary hearing and mandatory arraignment, when the defendant is advised of his rights to pretrial pleadings. If prosecutors decide they want to pursue the death penalty, they must file related documents at or before the mandatory arraignment.
Pennsylvania has 18 so-called “aggravating circumstances,” one of which must be proven to make a defendant eligible for the death penalty.
Ritter, a former public defender in New York, said the aggravating circumstance most at play in this case would be the killing of more than one person.
If the case proceeds to trial, a jury would first decide “guilty” or “not guilty” in each of the deaths of Brandi N. (Killingsworth) Cleeves, 25, of Boonsboro, Vincent Luke Santucci Jr., 28, and Rosemary Holma, 55. The trio were shot dead in the driveway of the 7705 Anthony Highway home shared by Santucci and Holma.
“If there was a felony involved, that could be an aggravating circumstance. If the shooting endangered other people, that is an aggravating circumstance,” said Taylor P. Andrews, who was the chief public defender in Cumberland County, Pa., for 35 years.
Cleeves claims in a custody filing he does not have a criminal history, and searches of court records appear to confirm that.
“The lack of a prior record is a mitigating circumstance the jury could weigh,” Ritter said.
“Just knowing the nature of the case and an aggravating circumstance doesn’t mean it’s an appropriate case for the death penalty,” said Marshall Dayan, a federal public defender in Pittsburgh.
Aggravating circumstances developed in the mid- to late-1970s to narrow down the first-degree murder cases eligible for the death penalty, but legislators seeking to appear “tough on crime” have created so many aggravating circumstances that they are losing their narrowing effect, Dayan said.
A guilty plea in the Cleeves case could avoid trial altogether, lawyers said.
Waynesboro attorney Stephen Kulla has worked on four murder cases, including that of Albert E. Reid. Reid is one of two people, the other being Michael B. Singley, who remain on death row from Franklin County, Pa., cases.
Two other capital murder cases — Jeffrey E. Miles Sr. and Marcus Wallace — are proceeding through the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas system now.
Reid killed his estranged wife and her 14-year-old daughter, and Singley killed his cousin’s wife and her neighbor. Prosecutors allege Miles killed two people unrelated to him, and Wallace killed his mother.
“It seems many of the murder cases in Franklin County have (underlying) family issues,” Kulla said.
A death penalty case splits an attorney’s focus because he or she not only must prepare for trial, but also prepare for immediate sentencing by the same jury if the defendant is found guilty, Kulla said.
Lawyers on death penalty cases must be specially certified, he said.
Cleeves would be required to have two defense lawyers if prosecutors choose to seek the death penalty. As of Friday evening, he did not have a lawyer listed in the Pennsylvania court system.
The defense team could try to suppress an alleged confession from a phone call the night of the killings, Ritter said. Forensics will be very important in the case, she said.
“At first blush, it doesn’t look like a particularly difficult case to prosecute, especially if he’s confessed,” she said.
The district attorney’s office might build its case on other types of evidence.
“A lot of times, cases are tried without eyewitnesses,” said Andrews, who now is in private practice in Carlisle, Pa.
Court documents indicate Cleeves’ 4-year-old daughter, Leia, might be one of the few surviving witnesses to the shootings.
“A 4-year-old is rarely deemed old enough to testify. ... It’d surprise me if she’d play a role in the evidence,” Ritter said, saying police certainly could talk to her when piecing together what happened.
“I think it’d be very unusual for a 4-year-old to give testimony under any circumstances,” Andrews said.
However, if two years pass before a trial, a 6-year-old would be more likely to testify, he said.
“A child under 6 is presumed to not know what it means to take an oath,” Dayan said.
In neighboring Cumberland County, it would take about two years for a case such as Cleeves’ to go to trial, Andrews said. Rules establish time frames under which cases should proceed, but continuances are very common, he said.
“The appeals courts are putting more and more burdens on the defense in a capital case,” Andrews said.
Appeals and post-conviction filings are typical because a defendant needs to be tried in a fair and just way, Dayan said. Mistakes can be made, as is proven by the more than 140 death row inmates exonerated across the country, including six from Pennsylvania, he said.
It is vital that a defense attorney develops a rapport with his client, which is something that did not happen with Reid, Kulla said. Reid would not share information with his attorneys, he said.
Andrews said that, in cases such as these, the gravity of the situation is difficult on everyone involved. Emotions can be strong, which he said is hard on both the prosecution and defense.