Hubert Michael Jr.
Hubert Michael Jr.

BELLEFONTE -- Murderer Hubert Lester Michael Jr. will not be executed Thursday night.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued an order denying a request by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office to vacate a stay of execution granted Thursday by an appeals court, according to Nils Frederiksen, spokesman for the attorney general's office.

He said his office must now address the remaining legal issues in the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

Department of Corrections Press Secretary Susan McNaughton said Michael was informed of the decision.

"If and when the stay is lifted by the court, the execution will be scheduled directly," she said.

Earlier Thursday evening, it was a "quiet, composed" Hubert Lester Michael Jr.

Trista Eng
Trista Eng
who declined a last meal as he waited to hear whether the highest court in the land would strike down his stay of execution.

Meanwhile, outside the Rockview state prison near State College, four death-penalty protesters stood outside in the dark.

Proceedings remained in a holding pattern for hours at Rockview's media briefing center until McNaughton announced the U.S. Supreme Court's decision about 8:45 p.m.

Michael was scheduled to be executed at 7 p.m. Thursday.

Throughout the day and into Thursday night, he remained in the execution holding cell, reading a Bible and a newspaper and listening to the radio, McNaughton said.

He did not write or dictate a final statement, she said.

Stay granted: The execution was put on hold because the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday morning granted Michael a stay of execution.

Then, on Thursday afternoon, the state Attorney General's Office filed an emergency motion to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking it to halt that stay, according to Nils Frederiksen, spokesman for the office.

Although the execution was set for 7 p.m., the death warrant signed by Gov. Tom Corbett remained in effect until midnight, McNaughton said, and the execution could have begun as late as 11:59 p.m.

This is the gurney to which death-row inmates are strapped to be executed at the Rockview state prison.
This is the gurney to which death-row inmates are strapped to be executed at the Rockview state prison. (Courtesy of the Pa. Dept. of Corrections)

Had the execution happened, Michael would have been handcuffed before walking the 20 feet from the holding cell to the execution chamber under escort by six corrections officers, McNaughton said.

The six officers are needed because death-row inmates are secured six ways to the gurney in the execution chamber -- by each limb, the head and the feet, she said.

Police escort: Michael arrived at Rockview at 6:09 Thursday morning from Greene state prison under police escort, according to McNaughton. He was brought here because this is the only state prison designated to handle executions.

He's had visits today from his spiritual adviser and one of his attorneys, she said, but no family members.

This is the "execution complex" at Rockview state prison, near State College, where death-row inmates are executed. Three inmates have been put
This is the "execution complex" at Rockview state prison, near State College, where death-row inmates are executed. Three inmates have been put to death since Pa. reinstituted the death penalty in 1972 (Courtesy of Pa. Dept. of Corrections)

Family members of the condemned are not given seats to watch executions, according to McNaughton.

She didn't know whether family members of 16-year-old murder victim Trista Eng came to Rockview.

It costs about $23,000 to execute an inmate, McNaughton said. (That figure would not include the costs of appeals.)


REPORTED EARLIER:

Just hours before his scheduled execution Thursday, Michael was granted a stay of execution.

His attorneys filed two last-minute appeals with the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, one of which resulted in the stay.

York County District Attorney Tom Kearney expressed disappointment with the ruling, saying the time to execute Michael is "long overdue."

"This case has been up and down the legal ladder for 20 years," he said. "There needs to be some finality, in the interests of justice. It's about time the decision of this community is carried forth."

Michael is represented by the Federal Community Defender Office in Philadelphia. His attorneys have declined interviews, but released a statement Thursday afternoon from Helen Marino, chief of the office's capital habeas unit:

"On behalf of Hubert Michael, we are extremely pleased that the federal Court of Appeals has granted (him) a stay of execution. Mr. Michael has suffered from debilitating mental conditions throughout his life. Mr. Michael has compelling legal claims in his case which have never been reviewed by any court. The Court of Appeals recognized that there are complicated issues involved in this case that should be carefully considered."

Last stop: Kearney has said the Third Circuit Court of Appeals was Michael's last chance to avoid being put to death for the 1993 kidnapping and murder of 16-year-old Trista Eng of the Dillsburg area.

The Third Circuit granted the stay based on Michael's appeal of Wednesday's ruling by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III.

Jones declined to stay the execution, writing:

"This court is disinclined to exercise its reservoir of discretion simply because the petitioner has now changed his mind. ... The case law simply doesn't support such a result.

"Indeed, to grant the relief requested by the petitioner would make the case a monumental example of the seemingly endless and oft-criticized federal habeas practice. Over 19 years after the heinous murder the petitioner has admitted committing, it is time to draw this affair to a close."

The Third Circuit issued the stay because it wants to know why Jones granted Michael a "certificate of appealability" when he refused to grant Michael a stay and refused to reopen Michael's habeas corpus appeal proceedings, according to Kearney.

The Third Circuit also noted parties should be prepared to litigate all their issues at one time.

No clemency: Shortly after 3 p.m. Wednesday, the state Board of Pardons unanimously denied Michael's request for clemency.

Kearney said the time has come to execute Michael.

"If a sentence is to mean anything, then it must be carried out." he said. "If it's the will of the community, we need to follow through, or else it's meaningless."

13 years: Michael, 56, formerly of Lemoyne, had been scheduled to die by lethal injection at 7 p.m. Thursday.

He would have been the first murderer put to death in Pennsylvania in 13 years, and the fourth inmate executed since 1972, when the state reinstituted the death penalty.

The three men executed since 1972 had all willingly given up appeals and weren't fighting their death sentences.

It's the third death warrant Pennsylvania governors have signed for Michael. The first two were in 1996 and 2004. Both times, his execution was stayed pending further appeal.

For years, Michael maintained he wanted to die, but he changed his mind in 2004, just days before his scheduled execution.

Attorneys with the Federal Community Defenders Organization in Philadelphia have argued he was not mentally competent when he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder on Oct. 11, 1994, and didn't challenge his death sentence.

Mental-health issues: Court filings indicate Michael suffered from mental-health issues while he was held in Graterford state prison, but that those issues improved when he was transferred to Greene state prison.

Now that his mental health has improved, Michael is fighting his death sentence.

Second denial: On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Yvette Kane also refused to grant Michael a stay of execution.

She is presiding over Chester v. Beard, a lawsuit filed six years ago on behalf of a number of Pennsylvania's death-row inmates. It claims the state's method in obtaining the drugs used for lethal injection is unconstitutional.

While Chester v. Beard remains active, Kane made a specific ruling in Michael's case, denying his request for a stay.

Michael's attorneys appealed both rulings to the Third Circuit, which denied a stay of execution for Michael in the Chester v. Beard class-action lawsuit.

The background: Michael told his former defense attorney, chief public defender Bruce Blocher, he went to the Franklin Township home of Trista and her mother to answer an advertisement about a chair for sale.

He told Blocher that when Trista answered the door in a Hardee's uniform, he made the decision to force her to have sex with him. While there, he stole some electrical cords from the house, the attorney previously testified.

Michael stopped to offer the teen a ride as she was walking along Route 15 to her job at the Dillsburg Hardee's on July 12, 1993. She accepted, and Michael kidnapped her.

At some point during the ride, Michael stopped the car and used the electrical cords to tie up Trista, then drove her to state game lands in Warrington Township, according to Blocher.

Raped: He raped her, put a bag over her head and shot her three times, Blocher has said, then hid her body in a wooded area.

Blocher revealed details of Michael's confession to him when called to the stand during a 1997 appeals hearing in the case.

Michael fled the state 10 days after killing Trista. At the time, he was free on bail for a Lancaster County rape charge.

Captured: He was captured July 27, 1993, in Utah, at which point police found the murder weapon in the car he was using, officials said.

He was charged with homicide in late August 1993, after Trista's body was found by his family members. Michael confessed the murder to his brother.

In November 1993, Michael escaped from Lancaster County Prison but was captured in New Orleans in March 1994, according to the Department of Corrections.

He was later sentenced to 10 to 20 years for the Lancaster County rape, according to court records.

The Eng family did not return messages seeking comment.

-- Staff writer Liz Evans Scolforo can also be reached at levans@yorkdispatch.com.