Decades later, serial killer source of pain, costs - Titusville Herald: News

Decades later, serial killer source of pain, costs

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Posted: Friday, July 13, 2012 12:00 am

The Morning Call

ALLENTOWN (AP) — When serial killer Harvey Robinson received three death sentences in 1994, the only woman to survive his attacks made sure she was there to hear the verdict and see his reaction.

"I thought, good," recalled Denise Sam-Cali, who was raped and choked by Robinson in 1993 and later helped police catch him when he returned to finish her off. "He should die."

But almost two decades later, Robinson, whom former Lehigh County District Attorney and current Judge Robert L. Steinberg has called "the poster child for the death penalty," is still breathing. His cases continue to drag on as his taxpayer-funded defense files appeal after appeal. Robinson has successfully overturned two of his three death sentences and he's likely to continue fighting the only death sentence remaining. The closure some victims thought they received 17 years ago has yet to arrive.

"I just wish it was over, that's all," said 59-year-old Carl Burghardt, whose 29-year-old sister, Joan Burghardt, was raped and beaten to death by Robinson in her Allentown apartment in 1992. Burghardt said he and other family members of Robinson's victims constantly have to wonder, "What's going to happen next?"

The case serves as an example for some that the death penalty is pointless. And too expensive. But prosecutors say some murderers — especially those like Robinson who rape and kill women and children — must face the ultimate punishment, even if the path is winding and costly.

Robinson's appeals have come at a steep price to taxpayers. A Morning Call review of court records and Lehigh County invoices showing bills paid for Robinson's cases since 1995 reveal that Robinson's appeals and post-conviction motions have cost taxpayers more than $200,000 in attorneys' fees and expert costs alone. And that doesn't count court time or the 1,000 to 1,500 hours the district attorney's office says it has spent handling Robinson's appeals.

"I would say without question Harvey Robinson's cases have been the most expensive and time-consuming appeals in Lehigh County over at least the past 14 1/2 years since I've been district attorney," said District Attorney Jim Martin.

And the bills continue to roll in. Robinson has had about a dozen court-appointed and taxpayer-funded attorneys since his case began. Lehigh County paid his former attorney, Temple University criminal justice professor Daniel Silverman, $76,241 for about 15 months of work from October 2010 to February 2012, according to county invoices and court records.

Silverman filed about 30 pretrial motions and asked for numerous continuances, delaying Robinson's resentencing in one of the cases. Silverman was eventually pulled from the case by Lehigh County Judge Edward D. Reibman after Martin complained about the delays.

"My feeling is as wonderful a judge as Judge Reibman has proven to be, he, like many judges, doesn't have a full appreciation for how much work is needed on a capital case," Silverman said.

So what did $76,241 get Robinson? Not much, according to Martin. Silverman was hired long after Robinson's 1994 death sentence for the killing of 15-year-old Morning Call newspaper carrier Charlotte Schmoyer was vacated in 2001. Silverman was hired for the upcoming resentencing in that case. Despite his hefty fees, he was booted from the case before Robinson could be resentenced.

"He filed motions for everything under the sun, most of which had no merit," Martin said. "He papered us to death with frivolous motions."

Silverman defended his work, saying, "Mr. Robinson deserves to prevail on every one of those motions," and called Martin's comments "pure political drivel."

Martin said: "The amount he was billing the county was ridiculous. It was a cash cow for him."

Silverman responded: "Mr. Martin should do a little research on what competent counsel in a capital case requires."

While Silverman was Robinson's attorney, he hired a psychologist, an investigator and mitigation experts who cost taxpayers $54,373 on top of Silverman's fees. Some of the planned testimony from Silverman's experts may never be heard because Silverman is off the case.

Robinson's new attorneys, Patricia McKinney and Paul George, could ask Reibman to hire new experts, forcing Lehigh County taxpayers to shell out more money. And, of course, there will be their bills. The attorneys are slated to each make $75 per hour.

Since Robinson was sentenced to three death sentences in 1994, taxpayers have shelled out $162,590 in attorneys' fees and expert costs for his post-sentence motions and appeals — that includes Silverman's costs, fees for the experts he hired and costs for prior experts and attorneys who were able to free Robinson of two of his three death sentences.

Besides costs for Robinson's defense, taxpayers have paid $38,250 since 2007 for the district attorney's office to hire mental health experts to combat some of Robinson's appeals. Those fees bring Robinson's total fees for his appeals to more than $200,000.

"There's no end when it comes to litigation in death penalty cases until the defendant is executed," Martin said.

The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty says death penalty cases from arrest to execution usually range from $1 million to $3 million per case, mostly because of lengthy trials and appeals. The organization says cases resulting in life imprisonment average around $500,000 each, including incarceration costs.

Brutal murders

Robinson became one of the country's youngest serial killers in history in 1992 and 1993, when he raped and killed three women, and raped and tried to kill Sam-Cali and a 5-year-old girl. He was 17 and 18 years old at the time.

All of the victims lived on Allentown's east side, some within blocks of Robinson's house in the 700 block of N. Kearney Street.

Burghardt was beaten on the head more than 30 times in her Allentown apartment in 1992. Schmoyer was kidnapped from her morning newspaper route in June 1993, taken to the East Side Reservoir and stabbed 22 times.

Jessica Jean Fortney, a 47-year-old grandmother, was beaten, strangled and suffocated in her Allentown home in July 1993.

Wearing a hat and gloves, Robinson entered a home in 1993, crept upstairs to a 5-year-old girl's bedroom and carried her to the first floor, where he put her facedown in a laundry basket full of clothes and raped her. He tried to choke her to death, but didn't succeed.

The same year, he broke into Sam-Cali's home and beat and raped her. She bit him and fought him off and he fled. She knew he'd come back.

Allentown police officer Brian Lewis was assigned to stay in the Sam-Cali home and in July 1993, Robinson broke in again through a window. Robinson and the officer exchanged gun blasts. Neither man was shot; Robinson fled. He was cut when he broke out of the home and was later apprehended at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown, where he went for treatment.

Robinson received 40 to 80 years in state prison for raping and trying to kill Sam-Cali and for shooting at the police officer and an additional 57 years for raping and trying to kill the child. He received three death sentences for killing Burghardt, Schmoyer and Fortney.

He had to be resentenced to life in prison in the Burghardt case because the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 prohibited death penalties for juvenile defendants, and Robinson was four months shy of his 18th birthday at the time of the killing.

Reibman vacated the death sentence for the Schmoyer slaying in June 2001, saying the trial judge gave the jury improper sentencing instructions. Robinson is scheduled to be resentenced in the Schmoyer case in March 2013 and could get either life behind bars or the death penalty.

On June 21, Reibman upheld the only remaining death sentence for Robinson for Fortney's killing.

The Defender Association of Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization that didn't charge attorneys' fees to Lehigh County, argued that Robinson's lawyers 17 years ago failed to tell a jury he has "serious frontal lobe brain damage" when it sentenced him to death.

County Chief of Prosecutions Stephen Van Natten successfully argued there's no proof Robinson had brain damage during the killings or that his former attorneys declined to tell a jury about it. Reibman dismissed Robinson's claims.

Martin expects an appeal on the matter. "I doubt we've seen the end of it," he said.

Worth it?

The seemingly endless appeals coupled with the fact that those on death row in Pennsylvania are much more likely to die of old age before they are killed by the state make many believe the death penalty is pointless.

David Nicholls was Robinson's attorney when he pleaded guilty to raping and trying to kill Sam-Cali. He handled Robinson's preliminary hearings on the murder charges, but had to withdraw from the case, mostly because the death penalty was being sought.

Nicholls, who had been hired by Robinson's mother, said she didn't have enough money to afford a defense against the death penalty. So it fell on taxpayers to pay a court-appointed attorney.

"You need a team of attorneys" in death penalty cases, Nicholls said. Nicholls said if a client is facing the death penalty, defense attorneys need to do anything to save his life.

Nicholls believes death penalty cases in Pennsylvania aren't worth the cost "regardless of the moral issue of whether or not the state should execute someone."

Silverman said studies he's reviewed have shown the state ends up paying three times more when a defendant is sentenced to death. He said that includes money spent for court employees — prosecutors, judges, sheriff's deputies, court reporters — and housing inmates on death row.

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