'I killed my brother': Plea means Zachary Witman could be released in 2019
For nearly 20 years, Zachary Witman denied murdering his 13-year-old brother Gregory in 1998.
On Thursday, Feb. 8, Zachary Witman had something different to say in court.
"Yes, I can say that I killed my brother by stabbing," he said.
Zachary Witman, now 34, entered a guilty plea for third-degree murder for the slaying of his brother and was sentenced to 15 years, 230 days to 40 years in prison.
After being in prison with a life sentence without a chance of parole since he was found guilty of first-degree murder in 2003, Zachary Witman will be eligible for parole in January 2019.
Plea: The plea was made during what was scheduled to be a post-conviction relief hearing Thursday afternoon in front of Common Pleas Judge Michael E. Bortner.
Chief deputy prosecutor Tim Barker said during the hearing that an initial guilty plea had been offered to Witman's attorney in 2002, but that was never extended to Witman.
The original plea offer wasn't known to Witman until late last year, when prosecutors met with him for ongoing negotiations.
"I'm not saying he didn't tell my parents, I'm just saying this is the first time I'm hearing about this," Barker recalled Witman saying.
Witman's original sentence and conviction were vacated, and he was allowed to plead guilty to third-degree murder.
Slaying: Now 34, Witman was just 15 when he was arrested and charged in Gregory Witman's 1998 slaying.
Gregory was stabbed and slashed 65 times and nearly decapitated in the family's laundry room. Police later found bloody gloves and a knife buried in the backyard of the family's New Freedom home.
During Thursday's hearing, Barker read from a transcript of Zachary Witman's confession of the events:
Witman had been sick on the day of the slaying — Oct. 2, 1998 —and stayed home from school. During the day his brother's girlfriend had called, and Zachary hung up on her.
Greg became angry at Zachary Witman after finding he had hung up on the girl. This made Zachary Witman mad.
Witman went to his room, where Greg confronted him. Looking to scare him, Witman grabbed a knife and gloves.
Greg went downstairs and accused Witman of not taking his relationship seriously.
Zachary Witman then went downstairs and, in "intense and extreme frustration," began stabbing his brother in the foyer of the home. Greg ran into the laundry room in an attempt to flee, and Witman followed him. He continued stabbing the younger boy until Greg was dead.
After the stabbing, Witman called 911 and, realizing what had happened, went out to the yard and buried the gloves and knife under a tree.
Barker said Witman was scared to admit what had happened at the time. He also said Witman would later find out he was suffering from depression.
Barker mentioned that Witman's recounting of events was very close to what prosecutors believed had happened.
"We were operating on intuition, and our intuition was right," he said.
Zachary Witman: Barker called Zachary Witman a "model prisoner" who never had a single write-up since his incarceration.
He's been helping other inmates obtain their GEDs, and he had even been a teacher's aide while in prison, he said.
Witman's attorney, Samuel Encarnacion, said his client has behaved in prison and that other people in his situation — those with life sentences — would not.
Barker said the commonwealth does not consider Witman a risk.
Bortner noted that Witman seemed bright and intelligent and said he hoped he would be able to give back to the community.
"I wish you well and I hope that you and your family can finally find some peace," he said.
Family: His family and friends have long maintained his innocence, and as recently as 2013 his parents were working with a former New York City homicide detective to try to prove it.
At that time, Ron and Sue Witman, his parents, offered a $100,000 reward and created a new tip line in hopes of shedding new light on the case.
Ron Witman was present during his son's hearing. He tried to approach the defense table to say hi to his son before the hearing but was not allowed.
Following the hearing, when asked for comment, Ron Witman took time to decry the media.
He referred to a joke from the 1993 movie "Philadelphia" in which one character asks "So what do you call a thousand lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean? A good start."
He said he thinks that way of journalists and cited numerous articles written about his family over the years.
Appeal: The U.S. Supreme Court in 2014 opted not to hear an appeal filed on Witman’s behalf.
The petition came after the same court's 2012 ruling that it is unconstitutional to automatically sentence convicted murderers to life without parole if they committed the crimes as juveniles.
Life sentences can still be handed down for juvenile murderers, but they can't be automatic, the court ruled.
The state Supreme Court in 2014 denied Witman's bid for a new sentencing hearing, prompting the appeal to the nation’s highest court.
— Reach Christopher Dornblaser at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @YDDornblaser