DA to seek death penalty
SUNBURY - Northumberland County District Attorney Tony Rosini announced Tuesday he will seek the death penalty for accused murderers Miranda and Elytte Barbour, and wants to try the husband-and-wife defendants together.
Rosini said he's confident a jury would impose the death penalty against both defendants if they are convicted of first-degree murder.
Also Tuesday, Miranda Barbour pleaded not guilty during a rare formal arraignment, and requested a jury trial.
The Barbours are accused of killing 42-year-old Troy LaFerrara, of Port Trevorton, in Sunbury on Nov. 11 in what has been labeled a "thrill kill" because of Elytte Barbour's statement to police that the young couple "just wanted to murder someone together."
Police said the victim was stabbed approximately 20 times and strangled with a cable in an alleged plot devised by the newlywed couple, who recently moved to Selinsgrove from North Carolina. LaFerrara answered a Craigslist ad from Miranda in which she offered companionship for money, police said.
Rosini filed a "notice of aggravating circumstances" that would permit jury members to impose the death penalty if they unanimously find that aggravating circumstances outweigh any mitigating circumstances. That and the notice for a joint trial were filed in the prothonotary's office shortly after 9 a.m. Tuesday, which was the deadline for the district attorney to decide on the death penalty.
He said aggravating circumstances include torture and the fact that a felony offense of robbery was allegedly committed during the killing.
During her 10:45 a.m. arraignment before President Judge William H. Wiest, 19-year-old Miranda was advised by her attorney, county chief public defender Edward Greco, to not have the criminal homicide and other charges filed against her by Sunbury police read before the court. The defendant, who had her legs shackled, told Wiest she understood her rights and pleaded not guilty to all the charges. Barbour, in a quiet voice, answered "yes" or "I do" to the judge's routine questions.
The defendant, who was escorted in and out of the courtroom by deputy sheriffs, appeared nervous during the brief legal proceeding. She cracked her knuckles on occasion and at one point seemed to mumble something to herself.
Greco, who was joined by assistant counsel Paige Rosini, said he plans to file various pre-trial motions within 30 days. Greco and Rosini, an assistant public defender, are both certified in death penalty cases.
Tony Rosini and Sunbury Sgt. Christopher Blase, one of the arresting officers, represented the prosecution.
Miranda Barbour, who was wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and sneakers, was transported from Northumberland County Prison to a detaining cell in the sheriff's office at about 8:45 a.m. for the scheduled 9 a.m. arraignment. But the proceeding was pushed back until later in the morning because Wiest said he never received official notice from the court administrator's office that the arraignment had been scheduled.
Prior to the arraignment, Wiest told a News-Item reporter, "It would be nice if somebody told me about this. I read in the newspaper over the weekend that the arraignment was supposed to start at 9 a.m., but it wasn't on my schedule. There is a lack of communication here."
Court administrator Brandy Yasenchak said a member of the judge's staff was notified about the date and time of the arraignment. She said court administration personnel were awaiting further guidance from the judge's staff on Friday afternoon, but never received it.
Formal arraignments for Miranda and Elytte Barbour were both listed on a court schedule for Tuesday sent out to the media by the court administrator's office. But no judge was assigned, which is customary for arraignments in the Court of Common Pleas because most are waived by defendants at their preliminary hearings before a magisterial district judge.
Out of the county's approximate 1,400 criminal cases in 2013, only five defendants had a formal arraignment.
Wiest presided at various cost contempt hearings prior to Miranda Barbour's arraignment.
Elytte Barbour, 22, who is represented by attorney James Best, previously waived his right to formal arraignment and remains in Columbia County Prison in Bloomsburg. He is scheduled to appear for a hearing Feb. 5 before Judge Charles Saylor to determine if the commonwealth is responsible for paying for a psychiatric exam to determine if Elytte Barbour is competent to stand trial.
Best previously said his client would request a jury trial if Rosini pursued the death penalty.
More on death penalty
In a press release issued after the arraignment, Rosini said he believes there is evidence to support two aggravating circumstances - "a killing committed while in the perpetration of another felony (robbery), and a killing committed by means of torture."
He said several members of LaFerrara's family, including his wife, Colleen, of Port Trevorton, and mother, Harriet, of Selinsgrove, have expressed a desire for authorities to seek the death penalty against both defendants. Rosini said a family's wishes, although considered, aren't the primary reason for seeking the death penalty.
No members of LaFerrara's family were in attendance at Tuesday's arraignment.
Aggravating factors are any relevant circumstances supported by the evidence presented during a trial that make the harshest penalty appropriate in the judgment of the jurors. Mitigating factors are any evidence presented regarding the defendant's character or the circumstances of the crime which would cause a juror to vote for a lesser sentence.
Each state has its own laws regarding how jurors are instructed to weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances.
In death penalty cases, each juror individually must weigh the circumstances and decide whether the defendant is sentenced to death or life in prison. In order to sentence a defendant to death, a jury must return an unanimous decision.
The jury does not have to return an unanimous decision to recommend life in prison. If any one juror votes against the death penalty, the jury must return a recommendation for the lesser sentence.
Pennsylvania is one of 32 states that still has the death penalty, and there are 18 aggravating circumstances that can lead to a capital murder conviction.
Even if the Barbours are convicted and sentenced to death, however, it's highly unlikely their sentences would be carried out. Only three convicted murderers have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and all three chose to forgo their appeals process, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
There are currently 198 inmates, including four women, on death row.
The following are the 18 aggravating circumstances involved in seeking the death penalty in Pennsylvania:
1. The murder was especially heinous, atrocious, cruel or depraved (or involved torture).
2. The capital offense was committed during the commission of, attempt of, or escape from a specified felony (such as robbery, kidnapping, rape, sodomy, arson, oral copulation, train wrecking, carjacking, criminal gang activity, drug dealing or aircraft piracy).
3. The murder was committed incident to a high jacking.
4. The defendant knowingly created a grave risk of death for one or more persons in addition to the victim of the offense.
5. The defendant committed or attempted to commit more than one murder at the same time.
6. The murder was committed for pecuniary gain or pursuant to an agreement that the defendant would receive something of value.
7. The defendant caused or directed another to commit murder, or the defendant procured the commission of the offense by payment, promise of payment or anything of pecuniary value.
8. The defendant has been convicted of, or committed, a prior murder, a felony involving violence, or other serious felony.
9. The victim was a child under 12 years of age.
10. At the time of the killing, the victim was in her third trimester of pregnancy or the defendant had knowledge of the victim's pregnancy.
11. The victim was a government employee, including peace officers, police officers, federal agents, firefighters, judges, jurors, defense attorneys, and prosecutors, in the course of his or her duties.
12. The victim was a pubic servant concerned in official detention who was killed in the performance of his duties or as a result of his official position.
13. The victim was the attorney general of Pennsylvania, a deputy attorney general, district attorney, assistant district attorney, member of the general assembly, governor, lieutenant governor, auditor general, or state treasurer who was killed in the performance of his duties or as a result of his official position.
14. The murder was committed against a person held as a shield, as a hostage, or for ransom.
15. The murder was committed against a witness in a criminal proceeding to prevent the witness from appearing.
16. The victim was a nongovernmental informant and the defendant committed the murder or was an accomplice to the killing, and the killing was in retaliation for the victim's activities.
17. The victim was involved, associated, or in competition with the defendant in the sale, manufacture, distribution, or delivery of any controlled substance or counterfeit controlled substance.
18. At the time of the killing, the defendant was subject to a court order restricting in any way the defendant's behavior toward the victim or any other order of a court of common pleas or of the minor judiciary designated in whole or in part to protect the victim from the defendant.
(Source: Death Penalty Information Center)