The only woman on Pennsylvania’s death row had her sentence thrown out by a judge who cited inadequate representation at her trial in the 2003 hatchet killing of her World War II-veteran neighbor.
Clinton County Senior Judge Michael Williamson sentenced Shonda Walter, 37, to life in prison without the possibility of parole, saying she had “totally incompetent counsel in the penalty phase” of her 2005 trial. Prosecutors had agreed not to seek the death penalty again, Williamson noted.
Walter killed James Sementelli, an 83-year-old veteran of the Pearl Harbor attack, in his Lock Haven home so she could steal his car and sell it to pay off court debts and to gain entry into a street gang, prosecutors said. He sustained more than 60 wounds, 18 fractures and 45 bruises, many of them to his head, face and neck, authorities said.
Evidence presented at trial indicated that Walter then drove his car to Williamsport but later returned to flush away a cigarette butt she had left in a toilet. Sementelli’s body was discovered six days later. The hatchet, which contained his blood, was found along a rural road near Williamsport.
Before trial, Walter had rejected a plea agreement that would have avoided the possibility of the death penalty. A jury took less than 30 minutes to convict her of first-degree murder.
In her appeal, Walter argued that her trial lawyer openly conceded her guilt and filed an appeal that one judge described as “unintelligible.” She had sought a new lawyer but was rejected. Walter, whose sentence was vacated on July 26, had been the only woman on Pennsylvania’s death row. Another woman, Michelle Sue Tharp, had her death sentence thrown out in 2014 and, according to online court records, is awaiting resentencing for starving her 7-year-old daughter.
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As of August 1, the state’s death row had 176 men on it, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. In February 2015, Democratic Government Tom Wolf announced a temporary moratorium on executions, calling the state’s capital punishment system error prone and expensive. Since reinstating the death penalty in the mid-1970s, Pennsylvania has executed three inmates, all of whom dropped their appeals.