Serial Killer Pleads - For Execution The Grisly Delaware Killings Deserve A Swift Punishment, The Killer Calmly Told The Justices.

Posted: February 12, 1992

DOVER, Del. — Cool and detached, Steven Brian Pennell argued before the state Supreme Court yesterday that the convicted serial torture-killer should be executed. As soon as possible.

The gruesome murders were cruel and outrageous, he said. At least one of the victims, Pennell pointed out to the five robed justices, surely felt ''pain, fear, helplessness" as she was tortured to death.

And the fact that the killer had at least four female victims meant "the perpetrator must have sensed a pleasure in these killings," he said.

Pennell spoke eerily of the murders in 1987 and 1988 for which he, himself, stands convicted.

There has not been an execution in Delaware since 1946, but Pennell is set on changing that with his own death by lethal injection. Yesterday, he became the first condemned man to personally argue his case before the state Supreme Court. He has refused legal representation since his first convictions in 1989.

His case has received extra attention because Pennell, 34, a construction electrician with a wife and two children, is seeking to be put to death without delay, even though he has never admitted guilt.

And his eagerness may be rewarded. Though six other killers await execution on Delaware's death row, Pennell's case has jumped to the fore because the six other inmates are contesting their sentences.

The state Supreme Court automatically reviews all death-penalty cases.

From November 1987 until his arrest a year later, Pennell cruised Highways 13 and 40 in northern Delaware, picking up prostitutes and other women to bind, torture and strangle in his blue van. He delivered death blows with a hammer.

"The way the circumstances were repeated again, and again, and again . . . one could hardly say the death penalty is disproportionate," Pennell told the justices yesterday, concluding, "Gentlemen, that's my position on this whole thing."

Police arrested Pennell at his Glasgow, Del., trailer home on Nov. 29, 1988.

On Thanksgiving Day 1989, a Wilmington jury convicted him of murdering Shirley A. Ellis, 23, in November 1987 and Catherine A. DiMauro, 32, in June 1988. Both women were from Newark, Del.

With the jury deadlocked on the death penalty, Pennell was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Prosecutors were preparing for trial in two other murders when Pennell abruptly pleaded no contest to charges that he killed Michele A. Gordon, 22, of New Castle County, and Kathleen Anne Meyer, 26, of Newark, in September 1988. Meyer's body has not been found.

But Pennell told the court that his plea was conditional: "I ask that the sentence be death." The next day, Halloween, Superior Court Judge Richard S. Gebelein complied.

Investigators also believe Pennell killed Margaret Lynn Finner, 27, in August 1988, though he was never charged with her murder because her body was too decomposed to provide the necessary evidence.

Finner's father, Robert Barlow of Wilmington, has attended every courtroom proceeding in Pennell's case. Yesterday was no exception.

"This man is a brutal murderer," Barlow said after the 20-minute proceeding. He looked across the ornate green courtroom at Pennell as Pennell chatted with Richard E. Fairbanks Jr., the state attorney general's chief of appeals. "I think this case should be brought to a conclusion."

Barlow has asked to be present for the execution, but he said he has received no word in response.

Pennell, dressed yesterday in a gray suit and wearing a short, dark beard, made work easy for Fairbanks, who followed Pennell to the podium to argue the state's case for execution. His reasons were virtually identical to those offered by Pennell - that the evidence had been overwhelming and the crimes indescribably grotesque, that the trial judge had been fair, and that the sentence was appropriate.

Pennell's courtroom appearance drew bitter comment from Michele Gordon's mother, Marlene Simm.

"He's so calm and sure of himself in his suit there. He looks like he's going to a social gathering," said Simm. "Until he gets executed for what he's done, I'm never going to feel like this is over."

Chief Justice Andrew D. Christie said the court must rule prior to his own retirement at the end of February. The parties will have 15 days after the decision to file objections. If they do not file, court officials said, Gebelein will be free to set an execution date.

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