More prison for York murderer who burned young mother alive

Liz Evans Scolforo

A York City man who abducted a woman, participated in her gang rape, tortured her and killed her four decades ago will remain in prison for at least eight more years before he's eligible for parole.

Warner Batty was 15 years old when he and co-defendant Donald Riviera kidnapped 26-year-old Betty Ilgenfritz Bradford at knifepoint, forced her into an abandoned building in York City and robbed her on Feb. 1, 1975.

Warner Batty

From there, the crime turned nightmarish, according to chief deputy prosecutor Tim Barker.

Batty, Riviera and other men in the area gang-raped Bradford, he said.

Batty and Riviera, who was 18 at the time, then brutally beat the young mother of four, suffocated her, covered her with a mattress and lit it on fire, the prosecutor said.

"She was burned while still alive," Barker said. "(Batty) acknowledged he struck the first match."

Life in prison: Rather than a jury trial, Batty in 1975 opted for a three-judge panel to determine his degree of guilt, according to the prosecutor.

At the proceeding, Batty admitted to having sex with Bradford but claimed it was consensual and said she was beaten and killed after she subsequently revealed she had a venereal disease, Barker said.

"None of that was true," he said, but the claim made its way into the community's consciousness and some believed it. (Batty now maintains he watched the gang rape but didn't participate, Barker confirmed.)

Although Batty was never charged with rape or robbery, the three-judge panel determined he committed both and found him guilty of first- and second-degree murder, Barker said. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Riviera, now 61, also was sentenced to life without parole, and he remains at the state prison in Somerset, according to the state Department of Corrections.

SCOTUS ruling: Batty's punishment was called into question in 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to automatically sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole.

A life sentence can still be handed down to a juvenile for the most heinous of crimes, SCOTUS ruled, but it cannot be an automatic sentence.

In Pennsylvania, adults convicted of first- and second-degree murder receive automatic life sentences without the possibility of parole. Since the SCOTUS ruling, juveniles convicted of murder as adults in Pennsylvania can receive shorter sentences than life.

Juveniles who were automatically sentenced to life in prison in the decades prior to the ruling, including Batty, are entitled to re-sentencing hearings.

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

Barker said it's not as simple as a judge reinstating the previously imposed punishment.

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Rehabilitated: SCOTUS has tasked sentencing judges to consider certain factors beyond simply the young age of the perpetrator at the time of the murder, including whether defendants are still a threat to the community, according to Barker.

He said the prosecution conceded Batty's release would not make the public unsafe; that Batty had no prison write-ups in the past 30 years; and that he's had no prison write-ups whatsoever for violent offenses.

Also, mental-health professionals from the prison and for both the prosecution and defense all agree Batty has been fully rehabilitated and that further incarceration would serve no rehabilitative purpose, according to Barker.

Barker said despite those factors, he still argued Batty should be re-sentenced to life without parole, citing the brutality and torturous aspects of the crime, the effect of creating fear in the community and even the long-term effect on Bradford's children.

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'Rarefied' heinousness: All four children were split up and raised separately, according to Barker, who said Tuesday's re-sentencing hearing was the first time since their mother's murder that all four were in the same room.

"This is the rarefied air of heinousness for crime," Barker said. "It's the kind of offense you'd find in a Stephen King book or a horror film. It was a torturous death."

Presiding Common Pleas Judge Harry M. Ness weighed all the legal factors in re-sentencing to a minimum of 50 years and a maximum of life, Barker said.

Batty, who turns 58 in a few days, will become eligible for parole in about eight years, after serving his minimum, the prosecutor confirmed.

His attorney, Gerald Lord, said they will appeal the re-sentencing.

Lord maintains every re-sentencing of every juvenile-lifer murderer is illegal because no common pleas judges in Pennsylvania have the statutory authority to impose sentences for first-degree murder where the defendants were juveniles at the time, and where case judgments became final before SCOTUS issued its ruling in the matter on June 25, 2012.

"The Pennsylvania Legislature changed the language of the old sentencing statute to take out juveniles and enacted a new statute that allows for new sentences (for new juvenile murderers)," Lord said, meaning state law doesn't cover Batty or any other juvenile lifer sentenced for murders that occurred before the June 2012 date.

"So in short, there's simply no sentencing authority and therefore the sentences are illegal," Lord said, despite the fact that the state Supreme Court is sanctioning the imposition of them.

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