Zachary Witman released; murdered 13-year-old brother in 1998
Zachary Witman, who murdered his 13-year-old brother in 1998 when he was 15, has been paroled from state prison.
He was released about 9 a.m. Tuesday, May 21, from SCI Smithfield, according to Maria Finn, press secretary for the state Department of Corrections. The prison is in Huntingdon County.
Witman, who just turned 36, spent the better part of two decades denying he killed Gregory Witman in the laundry room of their New Freedom home. Police later found bloody gloves and the murder weapon buried in the yard of the Witman home.
Witman used a small pen knife to slash Greg's neck more than 60 times, nearly decapitating his brother, according to trial testimony.
He was convicted in 2003 as an adult of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole but was allowed to plead guilty to third-degree murder last year for a shorter sentence after prosecutors determined his attorney never told him about a plea offer made prior to Witman's trial.
The state parole board granted Witman parole on Jan. 18, nearly a year after he confessed in court to killing his brother, and set his earliest release date for May 21.
The board did so based on Witman's participation in, and completion of, an institutional program and because of his positive institutional behavior, according to a copy of the board's decision.
Witman's initial conviction was tossed, and he pleaded guilty to third-degree murder in York County Court on Feb. 8, 2018. He was immediately sentenced to a minimum of 15 years and 230 days in prison and a maximum of 40 years in prison.
The plea came during what was scheduled to be a post-conviction relief hearing on his first-degree murder conviction before Common Pleas Judge Michael E. Bortner.
Witman's family and friends long maintained his innocence. In 2013, his parents enlisted the help of a former New York City homicide detective and a weapons expert to try to prove it, and they also worked with a documentary crew about the case.
What happened: During Witman's January 2018 guilty-plea hearing, chief deputy prosecutor Tim Barker read aloud a transcript of Witman's confession to authorities. According to that account:
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 he hung up on her.
When Greg came home from school, he became angry at his brother for hanging up on the girl, which in turn angered Witman.
Witman went to his room, where Greg confronted him. Looking to scare him, Witman grabbed a knife and gloves.
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 to escape, but Witman followed him and slashed and stabbed his brother to death.
Afterward, Witman called 911, then went outside and buried the gloves and knife under a tree in the yard of the family home.
Barker has said Witman was scared to admit what had happened at the time. He also said Witman would later learn he was suffering from depression.
Prosecutors extended a plea offer to Witman's attorney in 2002, but Witman wasn't told about it until late 2017, according to Barker. That was the basis for voiding his first-degree murder conviction and allowing him to plead guilty to third-degree murder.
His father, Ron Witman, did not return a phone message seeking comment on Tuesday.
Juvenile lifers: Had the plea agreement not been made and Witman's trial life sentence not thrown out, he would have had to be resentenced anyway. That's because his automatic life sentence is no longer legal.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to automatically sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole.
In Pennsylvania, people convicted of first- and second-degree murder received automatic life sentences without the possibility of parole no matter their age.
So juveniles automatically sentenced to life in prison before the SCOTUS ruling are entitled to resentencing hearings.
There are 518 such "juvenile lifers" across Pennsylvania, according to the state Department of Corrections. There are about a dozen juvenile lifers from York County.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.