York murderer's life sentence at issue 28 years later

Liz Evans Scolforo

Several siblings of Children's Home of York youth counselor Kwame Beatty — murdered inside a group home by a man and two teenage residents while a third teen resident acted as lookout — spoke in county court Wednesday about the possibility of the lookout being released from prison.

Now 43, Michael A. Lehman was 14 years old when he wielded a knife and stood guard as accomplices Cornell Mitchell, Dwayne Morningwake and Miguel Yoder crept into Beatty's bedroom in the North York group home and repeatedly stabbed him in the chest, stomach, shoulder, back and thigh on June 20, 1988.

Michael Lehman

Beatty, 23, was a great leader who would have helped make the world a better place, according to sister Ghana Redman. At the time he was murdered, Beatty held down three jobs and hoped to own his own business one day, she said.

Their mother's faith in God was shattered by her son's murder, according to Redman.

"Twenty-eight years she had to carry that sorrow," Redman said.

Sister Shirley Woodyard told presiding Common Pleas Judge Michael E. Bortner that during Lehman's trial, her brother was simply known as "the victim."

"As if he had no name," she said. "As if he never drew breath."

Beatty was born premature, his sisters said.

"Kwame suffered and fought for his life coming into this world," Woodyard said, telling the judge she finds it ironic that he left this world the same way.

'Charles Manson effect': Beatty's brother, Jomo Beatty, also worked at the Children's Home of York at the time and said it was Kwame who inspired him to help at-risk youth.

"I probably would still be working with youth today," he told the judge, had his brother not been murdered.

He said he had to leave because he was projecting his anger onto other children at the home.

Responding to questions by chief deputy prosecutor David Maisch, Jomo Beatty described Lehman's behavior at the group home as outrageous and grotesque, including fire-starting. He also said Lehman had a "Charles Manson effect" on fellow group home residents.

"Mr. Lehman ... was one problem after another," Jomo Beatty told the judge. "We couldn't get him out of there fast enough, to be quite honest."

The punishments: Lehman and Morningwake, who was 16 at the time of the slaying, were tried as adults, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Mitchell was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death, but he died in prison of AIDS-related complications in 1991. He was 25 when Beatty was murdered and testified he met the three group home residents after they ran away and he recruited them to sell crack cocaine for him.

After the murder, the foursome stole Beatty's wallet, cash and car and drove to Harrisburg, later returning to York by bus.

Yoder, who was 17 at the time, pleaded guilty to third-degree murder, robbery and other charges and was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison.

SCOTUS ruling: The punishments of Lehman and Morningwake were called into question in 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it is unconstitutional to automatically sentence juveniles to life without parole. A life sentence can still be handed down to a juvenile, SCOTUS ruled, but it cannot be an automatic sentence.

In Pennsylvania, people convicted of first- and second-degree murder receive automatic life sentences without the possibility of parole.

So juveniles automatically sentenced to life in prison, including Lehman and Morningwake, are entitled to resentencing hearings, and Lehman's happened Tuesday and Wednesday. Morningwake's is set for March 27, according to court records.

There are 11 such "juvenile lifers" in York County, and about 460 across the state.

The killer speaks: A number of witnesses testified Wednesday, both for the prosecution and for the defense, including the murderer himself.

"I want to come home," Lehman said during questioning by his attorney, Gerald Lord. "The other part of me — the guilty part, the shamed part, the part that is filled with self-loathing — says I shouldn't be given a chance to go home."

Lehman became choked up as he testified that, unlike his victim, he can still see his family.

"His family doesn't have that," he said. "At Christmastime, there's an empty seat at the (Beattys') table. How is that fair?"

'What I deserve': Lehman described his resentencing hearing as a win-win proposition for him. If he's released, he gets to figure out what freedom means, he said, and "if I get sent back to prison for the rest of my life, it's what I deserve," he concluded.

He recalled being sent to the state prison in Rockview after spending more than a year each at York County Prison and the state prison in Camp Hill.

"I was angry — at myself, at the world," he testified. "I had all this guilt and shame. ... I hated myself."

He said he learned he could still have a quality of life in prison by taking classes, participating in the prison's Lifers Association and mentoring other inmates.

Also testifying were his adopted mother and siblings, who told the judge they would make sure Lehman had a place to live, a job and support.

April hearing: Judge Bortner has given both sides time to file briefs on the matter before he resentences Lehman.

Before adjourning on Wednesday, Bortner set Lehman's sentencing for 1:30 p.m. April 4.

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.