Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Probably Not Impending Execution of Kenneth Hairston

Kenneth Hairston sits on death row awaiting execution by the people of Pennsylvania. His execution is currently scheduled for 18 January. Though it is likely his execution will be stayed, I will nonetheless review his case in this post. I offer the following summary of facts from the adverse appeal in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Kenneth Hairston. To improve the readability, I have excluded the legal references and I have changed all instances of Appellant to Hairston.
On May 20, 2000, Hairston's stepdaughter, Chetia Hurtt, and her boyfriend, Jeffrey Johnson, returned to Hurtt's apartment from a movie to discover several voicemail messages left by Hairston, questioning where Hurtt was and when she would be home. Hurtt, 21, had known Hairston since he married her mother when Hurtt was five years old, and had lived under the same roof as Hairston, her mother (Katherine Hairston), Hairston's autistic son (Sean Hairston), and her grandmother (Goldie Hurtt), until Hurtt moved out approximately one month earlier. During Hurtt's adolescence, her relationship with Hairston deteriorated. Hairston prohibited Hurtt from socializing with males and frequently threatened that he would kill her and the rest of her family. 
Bothered by the phone messages that May evening, Hurtt asked Johnson to spend the night. The following morning, May 21, 2000, Hairston arrived at Hurtt's apartment with a handgun, which he was not licensed to carry. After being let into the apartment, Hairston instructed Hurtt to tell Johnson to leave. When Hurtt did not comply, Hairston threatened to kill Hurtt, Johnson, and himself, and stated that he would not go to jail. Despite Hurtt's protests that Johnson should stay -- for fear of what might happen should he leave -- Johnson left the apartment. Hairston pointed the gun at Hurtt's face and said, "If you're going to be F'ing anybody, it's going to be me." Hurtt pleaded with Hairston not to hurt her, but he took her into the bedroom. Hairston removed his clothes and tried to remove Hurtt's clothes, but she resisted. 
Meanwhile, Johnson stopped Sergeant William Gorman of the Pittsburgh Police Department and explained what was occurring. The police went to the apartment and announced their presence. Hairston pulled the ammunition clip out of the gun, threw it behind the door, and slid the gun underneath the bed. Hurtt escaped through the front door of the apartment. The police found a half-naked Hairston in the apartment. He claimed that he lived in the apartment with his daughter and came home to find her with Johnson. A Bryco-Arms 0.380 semi-automatic pistol was recovered from the bedroom. Hairston, yelling, "I can't go to jail," broke away from police as they were bringing him out of the apartment building. Hairston then jumped headfirst off a small roof to the ground fifteen-to-twenty feet below. Hairston got back on his feet and again began yelling, "I can't go to jail. I'm not going to jail." As a result of these events, criminal charges were filed against Hairston. 
One year later, in the morning hours of June 11, 2001, Hairston called the dispatcher at the school bus company that transported Sean Hairston, who was autistic, to school and requested that the bus not pick up Sean. Hairston spoke separately with two neighbors outside of his home that morning, each of whom noticed that Hairston smelled of alcohol and was very agitated. Hairston told both neighbors that he was upset about his stepdaughter's accusations, telling one neighbor that he would not go back to jail and that if he had to go to jail he "would probably do [him]self in." 
Shortly thereafter, thick black smoke was seen coming out of Hairston's home. Firefighters who reported to the scene found both the front and back doors locked and barricaded. Finally, the firefighters gained entry. They discovered that the house was covered in garbage bags and debris. They retrieved Sean, who was lying underneath bags and debris, on the living room couch. His face and head were covered with a blanket. He was brought outside alive to paramedics. However, he died while being treated at the hospital after suffering two cardiac arrests. The injuries leading to his death were two or three incidents of blunt force trauma to his head.
Firefighters re-entered the house and found Hairston inside the kitchen, at the top of the basement stairwell. Hairston had several puncture wounds to his chest and a laceration on the right side of his neck. He was extremely combative with paramedics, and had to be restrained with handcuffs and stretcher straps, then ultimately paralytic drugs, before being transported to the hospital. 
Firefighters also found Katherine in the kitchen. She was found with a hole in the side of her head, and was dead weight upon being brought out of the house. Toxicology screening showed no evidence of carbon monoxide or cyanide in her blood stream. Goldie Hurtt, who had previously suffered three strokes and a heart attack, was found incapacitated in an upstairs bedroom and was removed safely from the house.
In the kitchen, police found a large amount of blood in front of the refrigerator. Two knives were found in the kitchen. Sheets and bedding materials were found on the floors and counters. Four days after the fire, the Hairston family dog was found covered by debris in the basement and tied to a pole.
Police interviewed Hairston at the hospital where, because he was wearing an oxygen mask, he could communicate only by indicating simple yes or no responses. Hairston indicated that he knew who started the fire, that he killed his wife, and that his motivation for the killing and the fire were the impending charges against him. Hairston also indicated that those charges against him were untrue.
On June 19, 2001, police again interviewed Hairston. He gave both an oral and a taped statement. He explained that he wrapped a ten-pound sledgehammer in a pillowcase and intentionally struck his wife with it from behind as she sat on their bed. He struck her a second time, then dragged her from their first-floor sleeping area into the kitchen. Hairston also confessed that, minutes later, he struck his son Sean with the sledgehammer twice. After hearing moans in the kitchen, he struck Katherine again with the weapon. Hairston stated that he left the house with the weapon, drove to a local bar, where he consumed two double-shots and two beers, then discarded the sledgehammer in a wooded area. Hairston then drove home and poured gasoline over the basement floor. According to Hairston, flames from the water heater ignited the gasoline before he was ready to ignite them. He then got a knife, stabbed himself twice in the chest, and then lay down next to his wife's body. Hairston went on to explain that he intentionally piled items throughout the house to ensure that the fire indeed killed everyone: "I just wanted to make sure that we were gone." Transcript of Hairston's taped interview, dated June 19, 2001, at 6. Hairston then revealed to police the location of the sledgehammer, which tested positive for blood.
Hairston was charged with two counts of criminal homicide. He was appointed counsel, and his jury trial began on April 15, 2002. On April 17, 2002, the jury convicted Hairston on both counts of first-degree murder. At the close of the penalty phase, Hairston was sentenced to death for each murder conviction. The trial court formally imposed sentence on July 11, 2002.
I find no one, not even Kenneth Hairston, claiming that he is factually innocent of the crimes. While I vehemently oppose the execution of someone who might reasonably be factually innocent of the crime for which they are to die, I neither oppose nor support executions in which the person clearly committed the crime. In the case of Kenneth Hairston, I therefore stand mute with respect the propriety of his execution.