Guest Column: Certain cases provide good reason for death penalty

Delaware County Daily Times Guest Columnist

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Some would say that capital punishment is itself in the throes of death. As a former prosecutor and member of Pennsylvania’s Joint State Government Commission Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment, I would argue that the only execution carried out in the United States so far this year should give pause to anyone considering the abolition of the death penalty.

Five states have abolished the death penalty in just the last five years. Only nine states carried out executions in 2012, two fewer than the year before. There is strong support for outlawing the death penalty in Maryland, Montana and New Hampshire. Oregon’s governor has stopped all executions in his state.

Although the 43 executions carried out in 2012 were identical to the number carried out in 2011, the number of new death sentences, 77, was the second lowest since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Three states traditionally known for strong law and order traditions — North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia — did not have a single death penalty verdict in 2012.

A December 2012 Gallup Poll found that 63 percent of Americans support the death penalty, the second lowest percentage since 1978, significantly down from a high of 80 percent in 1994. With that as a backdrop, Virginia executed Robert Charles Gleason Jr. on Jan. 16, 2013. Gleason is why America needs the death penalty.

Gleason was serving life in prison for the 2007 fatal shooting of a man in order to cover up his involvement in an illegal drug enterprise. In 2009 he became frustrated with prison officials who refused to move Gleason’s 63-year-old cell mate, who suffered from mental illness. Gleason admitted to binding the cell mate, Harvey Watson, with torn bed sheets, beating him, taunting him about his impending death, shoving a urine soaked sponge in his face and a sock in his mouth, and finally strangling him with the torn bed sheets.

Gleason told authorities he concealed Watson’s body in his cell for 15 hours, making excuses for Watson’s failure to emerge. Gleason planned to dispose of the body in the garbage that was circulated to pick up food trays. Gleason was unsuccessful; prison personnel soon discovered Watson’s body. Gleason pleaded guilty, making a full confession under oath. He revealed that the murder was planned to occur on the second anniversary of his prior killing.

Throughout the court proceedings, Gleason consistently made it clear that he had no remorse. He flaunted the fact that premeditated murder of an inmate and more than one murder within a three-year period were punishable by the death penalty in Virginia. He warned the court that he “already had a few (other) inmates lined up, just in case I didn’t get the death penalty, that I was gonna take out.”

Following Watson’s death, Gleason was moved to solitary confinement in Virginia’s “supermax” Red Onion Prison. On July 28, 2010, Gleason was in a segregated recreation pen that shared a common wire fence with another inmate, Aaron Cooper. Gleason asked Cooper to try on a “religious necklace” that Gleason was making. Gleason proceeded to strangle Cooper through the wire fence, repeatedly choking Cooper “til he turned purple,” waiting “until his color came back, then (going) back again” until Cooper finally succumbed. Gleason laughed at the reaction of the other inmates. He then watched and mocked the prison staff attempting to revive Cooper.

Gleason was charged with capital murder. In 2011, he pleaded guilty to the murder of Cooper. He informed the court that he had deliberately targeted Cooper to make a point to the prosecutor that if he was not executed he would continue to kill. The diabolical Gleason was defiant to the end. He requested to be executed by electrocution, his right in Virginia. His final words, in Irish Gaelic, “Pog mo thoin” – “kiss my ass.”

Gleason’s conduct seems to cry out for the death penalty. The end of the death penalty seems inevitable in Maryland and New Hampshire, but lawmakers should proceed with caution. Does life without parole as the ultimate punishment give the truly evil carte blanche to kill?

Matthew T. Mangino is the former district attorney for Lawrence County and recently completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. He is a featured blogger on our blog list. You can follow him on twitter @MatthewTMangino.

To access a directory of Matt's The Crime Report columns click on The Crime Report under 'Labels' on this sites home page.