Western Pennsylvania Prosecutor Makes His County an Epicenter for the Death Penalty
Washington County accounts for about a quarter of the state’s active death penalty cases under Jason Walsh, who became DA in 2021 and is seeking a full term this month.
Lauren Gill | October 6, 2023
In February 2021, two men wearing masks entered a convenience store in Donora, Pennsylvania, and shot the clerk, Nicholas Tarpley, six times. Months later, police arrested Sidney McLean and Devell Christian, and charged them with murder. Washington County District Attorney Jason Walsh announced that he would seek the death penalty against them should they be convicted.
Then that December, police arrested a third suspect, Jah Sutton. Video did not show her at the scene of the crime but investigators connected her to the killing by claiming she was dating McLean and saying they discovered her DNA on a bullet casing found at the store. Walsh announced that he would prosecute Sutton for capital murder and also seek the death penalty against her.
In a preliminary hearing, a state trooper admitted there was no additional evidence against Sutton, testifying that he had not found anything on her cell phone tying her to the killing of Tarpley. Sutton’s lawyer, Timothy Dawson, has insisted there was no connection, pointing out that Sutton was not in fact McLean’s girlfriend; she had previously admitted to an investigator that she knew him by a different name and that police had only seen her with him because she was a sex worker. “The location of DNA on a shell casing does not establish anything other than at some unknown point in time, this Defendant handled or touched that casing. Nothing more,” Dawson wrote in a court filing.
In an interview, Dawson said that he thought Walsh had overstepped, telling Bolts, “There’s not sufficient evidence to even prosecute a murder charge against her, let alone a capital case.”
Ryan James, a lawyer for Christian, Sutton’s co-defendant, filed a motion in May arguing that Walsh should be disqualified from prosecuting the case because “there is more than just suspicion that the death penalty is being sought by this [DA] for political gain.” In his motion, James alleged that Walsh chose to seek the death penalty against Sutton to pressure her into giving information about her co-defendants. “[M]onths before being charged, Ms. Sutton was detained, badgered, and threatened by law enforcement,” James wrote, claiming police told her that if she didn’t cooperate she would lose custody of her child and go to jail, where she’d be brutally killed by a drug gang.
Since taking office in 2021, Walsh has made a name for himself because of how frequently he decides to pursue the death penalty. In his first year, he sought the death penalty in five out of nine of the county’s murder cases. To date, his office is responsible for 12 capital cases that have yet to go to trial, making up approximately a quarter of the total pending death penalty cases in Pennsylvania. Washington County only makes up approximately two percent of Pennsylvania’s population.
Walsh, a Republican who is seeking a full term on Nov. 7, has defended how often he seeks the death penalty, including in the case against Sutton. Last year he told KDKA News, “I’m very consistent and will seek the highest form of punishment for the most heinous crimes.” Walsh did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, but this week his office filed a motion for a gag order to bar lawyers on the Christian case from speaking about it as well as another motion seeking to punish them with sanctions over their attempt to remove him from the case. His motions also cite the inquiries he received from Bolts.
At the same time, Pennsylvania has been moving away from the death penalty over concerns about the cost of capital cases, racial biases, and its overall ineffectiveness in reducing crime. There’s been a moratorium on executions in the state since 2015, meaning that anyone sent to death row won’t be executed until it’s lifted. Earlier this year, Governor Josh Shapiro called on the Pennsylvania legislature to abolish the death penalty.
Marc Bookman, executive director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, an organization that works on death penalty issues, said that Walsh is “abusing his discretion by seeking the death penalty in every case he can,” and his use of the death penalty is straining Washington County’s resources. “Washington County doesn’t have qualified lawyers for these capital cases, and it’s terribly expensive to taxpayers,” he said.
The death penalty has emerged as a key issue in the local DA race this year as Walsh faces Christina DeMarco-Breeden, a prosecutor in nearby Somerset County who is from Washington County. DeMarco-Breeden says the death penalty should be used for the worst crimes and criticized Walsh for overusing the punishment for his own political gain while depleting taxpayer dollars to fund prosecutions. “It is my position that he’s politicizing the death penalty,” she told Bolts.
Walsh took over as Washington County’s DA in 2021 after the death of his predecessor, Eugene Vittone. During Vittone’s nine years in office, he sought the death penalty just five times. Prior to Walsh’s role in the DA’s office, Walsh worked in private practice representing clients in criminal cases, DUIs, and white collar crime.
Walsh’s capital cases are primarily focused on infants who died under a variety of circumstances, with seven people facing the death penalty for such charges. In December 2022, he said he would pursue the death penalty against a couple after their baby died from fentanyl ingestion; one of their lawyers said that the poisoning was accidental, which would have disqualified them for the death penalty because the punishment requires the killing to be intentional. Another of Walsh’s death penalty cases involves a couple who were found to have hidden their baby in a wall after he died; they say he died naturally and hid him because they could not afford to bury him. Walsh is also prosecuting a man who said his baby died after he fell on top of him; child welfare investigators said that was likely not the case and that his injuries denoted physical abuse.
As deputy DA in Somerset County, DeMarco-Breeden is currently seeking the death penalty against one defendant, Paul Kendrick, who is accused of killing a prison guard. DeMarco-Breeden said that she thinks the case warrants the death penalty because there’s strong evidence of the brutal killing. “I believe it’s the first degree case, it’s actually on, it’s on surveillance video. I think the jury is going to have a really hard time watching it,” she said.
If elected Washington County DA, DeMarco-Breeden said she would review each capital case to see if the evidence is sufficient for a death sentence. “Ethically, I have to,” she said. “I think you know, as prosecutors we are bound by the law, we are bound by only proceeding on charges that we believe we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Washington County is located on Pennsylvania’s western border and is home to roughly 209,000 people, about one fifth the size of Allegheny County, which is home to Pittsburgh. Yet Walsh has sought the death penalty much more aggressively than his counterpart there; Allegheny County has just five pending death penalty cases, despite having a higher murder rate.
Critics have said that Walsh’s decisions to seek the death penalty will be costly to Washington County taxpayers. It costs much more to prosecute death penalty cases than other murder cases that are non-capital. Researchers haven’t studied how much death penalty prosecutions in Pennsylvania are but in Kansas, for example, it costs an average of $395,800 to take a death penalty case to trial and appeal, as opposed to $99,000 for non-death penalty cases. Indiana death penalty trials cost an average of $789,000, while the average cost of a life without parole case is $185,000, according to researchers.
Compounding the problem, Pennsylvania is the only state in the country that doesn’t provide state funding for indigent defense. Instead, each county is responsible for budgeting for public defenders, and because the majority of capital defendants are indigent, or too poor to afford their own attorney, they rely on public defenders to represent them. There are 12 pending capital cases but only 10 lawyers in Washington County who are qualified to work on death penalty cases, a database tracking qualifications shows.
Historically, Pennsylvania death sentences haven’t held up in appeals. More than half of the 408 people sentenced to death since the beginning of the modern death penalty era in 1976 have had their sentences reduced on appeal and six people have been exonerated.
New death sentences have declined over the years. Since 2015, just nine people have been sentenced to death. Of the 100 people currently on Pennsylvania’s death row, just one is from Washington County.
Bookman with the Atlantic Center says Walsh’s use of the death penalty will spark long and costly litigation. “It’s likely these cases will end up being reversed and retried years from now, opening up old wounds for the victims and costing even more money to the taxpayers.”
Bolts is closely covering the ramifications of Pennsylvania‘s 2023 elections for voting rights and criminal justice.