Rega sentenced to death
The Derrick, 6/22/02 By LISA THOMPSON
special thank you goes out to The Derrick for allowing this story to be posted
THE PUNXSUTAWNEY MAN IS ORDERED BY JURORS TO PAY THE ULTIMATE PRICE FOR KILLING NIGHT WATCHMAN CHRISTOPHER LAUTH AT THE GATEWAY LODGE.
BROOKVILLE - "Yes, death."
Standing one by one and speaking in firm voices, 12 solemn Jefferson County jurors Friday imposed the ultimate penalty on Gateway Lodge gunman Robert Rega for the deliberate killing of night watchman Christopher Lauth.
As the jury spoke, Rega shook his head as Lauth's half-brother, who held constant vigil throughout the two-week capital murder trial, sat forward and watched him intently. Rega's mother, Joan Rega, entering the courtroom after the verdict was announced, wailed with grief when she learned of the decision, then began to gasp and shout.
"He's dead," she said.
Judge John H. Foradora ordered deputies to
remove her from the courtroom.
The death penalty announced at about 5:45 p.m. came after an afternoon sentencing hearing in which jurors heard evidence from both the prosecution and defense about what so-called aggravating and mitigating factors accompanied the killing.
For the first time, jurors heard from Lauth's family. His half-brother, David Planker, told jurors the slaying devastated him and his and Lauth's elderly mother, who died almost three months to the day after his brother was killed.
"I could sit here and we could talk for a thousand years and could only scratch the surface," he said.
With the sentence delivered after about two hours of deliberation, jurors indicated they believed facts about the slaying, such as Rega's prior record and the fact the murder was committed in the course of another felony, outweighed any possible mitigating evidence presented by the defense, particularly Rega's relationship with his two daughters, ages 6 and 7.
The small dark-haired girls, put on the stand by the defense Friday in brightly colored summer outfits, climbed into the witness box blithely unaware of the nature of the proceeding to tell jurors how much they loved their father.
Rega, 35, of Punxsutawney, was convicted early Friday of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, robbery, burglary, criminal conspiracy, theft, aggravated assault, unlawful restraint and criminal mischief. The case brought by District Attorney Jeffrey Burkett involved seven days of testimony that largely pitted Rega against his alleged co-defendants in the botched Dec. 22, 2000, robbery at the nationally known inn.
Jurors found Lauth was held at gunpoint as the group, including Rega, Shawn Bair, Raymond Fishel and Stanford Jones, robbed the inn of a safe because they wanted money for Christmas presents. Rega then shot the watchman three times in the head and chest before fleeing to the getaway car, jurors found.
As Lauth lay dead and alone in the inn, the conspirators divided the $19,000 proceeds, then launched a weeks-long spending spree, the evidence showed.
Following the announcement of the death penalty for first-degree murder Friday, Foradora sentenced Rega on the remaining charges, stepping far outside the sentencing guidelines and ordering the defendant to serve the statutory maximum on each count.
In addition to death, Foradora ordered Rega to serve the mandatory sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole for the second-degree murder, followed by 39 1/2 to 79 years on the remaining charges. Foradora said those sentences would come into play should Rega's death sentence someday be commuted.
Explaining the stiff sentence, Foradora told
Rega the only hint of emotion or remorse he had seen from him came only when
Rega's mother and wife testified Friday afternoon.
Foradora said Rega executed an innocent person who, as his brother had testified, suffered severe eye injuries and some mental disabilities from a childhood injury.
"A person's life is priceless. In this case, a
human life was forfeited for $20,000," he said, recalling that the crime likely
would not have happened without Rega's leadership.
In addition, Rega, with an extensive criminal history of burglary, had never been rehabilitated and was on parole when this happened, Foradora said.
"You're a danger to society. I believe you
killed once and I believe you may do it again. I certainly know...you have a
constant ability and need to work toward no good," he said.
Foradora asked Rega if he wanted to say anything.
"I'm not guilty your honor. That's my statement," he said.
Now sentenced to death, Rega will be held in a state prison with the state's more than 800 other death row inmates while attorneys take up his appeal. Under state law, a death sentence is automatically appealed directly to the Supreme Court, which has a special docket for such cases. Foradora said Rega's attorneys, Michael English and Ronald Elliott, remain court-appointed to represent him in that process.
Following the sentence and after Rega was handcuffed and led from the courtroom, Gateway Lodge owners Linda and Joseph Burney, their family members, and Planker thanked and congratulated Burkett and arresting officer Trooper Louis "Chip" Davis.
The Burneys with their daughter, Ann Lipford,
one of the intended victims of the robbery plot, and several other family
members attended the trial daily. Linda Burney said she hoped the citizens of
Jefferson County realized the level of skill and service provided by the
prosecution team and Foradora, praising the care with which they shepherded both
the case and the victims through the system.
"They put themselves in our shoes," she said.
Burkett welcomed the jury's decision.
"I believed this was just. I would not have
sought the death penalty if I did not think it was appropriate. All I have to
think about is the last few minutes of Christopher Lauth's life on this earth
and I know justice was done," he said.