Pa. Last Carried Out Death Penalty In 1962 Elmo Smith Died For Raping And Killing A Manayunk Schoolgirl. The Case Drew Sensational Coverage.

Posted: May 03, 1995

The night of April 2, 1962, Gov. David L. Lawrence shuffled papers at his desk in Harrisburg, somberly awaiting what would turn out to be Pennsylvania's last execution in 33 years.

Attorney General David Stahl paced uncomfortably in an adjoining office, watched by Lawrence's secretary and Saul Kohler, an Inquirer reporter whose deadline approached. No one spoke.

About 100 miles away in Bellefonte, guards at Rockview Penitentiary, as the State Correctional Institution at Rockview was then known, strapped a freshly shaved murderer named Elmo Lee Smith into the great, solid-oak electric chair where 349 men and women had died since 1915. A chaplain loudly chanted ''Nearer My God to Thee." An open telephone line connected the governor to the death chamber.

At 9:02 p.m., Kohler remembers, Lawrence raised the phone to his ear. Two minutes later, the governor called out to him through the open door.

"Get your (rear) in gear, Kohler. He's dead."

The execution of Smith, a 41-year-old handyman from Bridgeport, was front- page news throughout the Philadelphia area the next day.

Predictably so. Smith's grisly rape and murder of a Manayunk schoolgirl in 1959 had horrified a public not yet numbed by such brutality.

"Up until that case, I didn't like the death penalty. But the death penalty fit that crime," said Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge Vincent A.

Cirillo, who prosecuted Smith in 1960 when Cirillo was an assistant district attorney in Montgomery County.

The victim, Maryann Theresa Mitchell, 16, was a student at Cecelian Academy who sang in school musicals and hoped to become a nurse. The week after Christmas 1959, Smith abducted her from a Philadelphia bus stop, raped her, beat her to death with a car jack and dumped her body in a roadside gully in Whitemarsh Township, Montgomery County.

The case dominated news coverage for weeks. Smith had just been paroled after 10 years in prison for a series of assaults against Norristown-area women, one of whom nearly died. He was also suspected, but never charged, in the rape and murder of a 5-year-old Montgomery County girl in 1947.

Publicity was so intense that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered Smith's trial moved halfway across the state to Gettysburg. He was convicted and, on Sept. 1, 1960, sentenced to death.

Feelings ran high, even in Gettysburg. As Smith was taken to court one day a woman rushed at him, screaming, "You rat, you rat!" After trial he was returned to Montgomery County, where a mob of 500 threw stones and yelled, ''Hang him."

"It was like a typical Wild West mob scene," Cirillo said.

Yet, compared with the coverage of the murder itself, the attention paid Smith's execution was minimal.

"When he walked the last mile, it was anticlimactic," said Kohler, who now works in public relations but who covered the crime, trial and execution. ''Every little detail was not out there on the front page like it was World War III."

Times were different then. Murder still shocked the public, but capital punishment, if not wholly accepted, had not become the political tinder it is today.

Gov. Lawrence, for example, opposed the death penalty and was not afraid to say so. Enough state legislators felt likewise that a bill to abolish capital punishment in Pennsylvania was debated in 1961.

The governor halted executions until the bill could be voted upon. When it failed, Lawrence lifted his moratorium in the fall of 1961.

Smith's attorneys appealed his death sentence. While never disputing his guilt, they said he was insane and should have been spared.

Smith, a native of Virginia, grew up in Chester County, served in the Army during World War II, married and had a son in 1947.

After the child's birth, Smith launched a string of random burglaries and vicious attacks on women. He beat one with a milk bottle, another with a frying pan, another with a rolling pin. Some he attempted to rape. Others he jumped at on the street, nude.

The judge who sent him to prison in 1948 called Smith a "Jekyll and Hyde" personality who should never be released. A psychiatrist said he had "sexual tendencies which led to caveman tactics," yet Smith received no treatment before being paroled.

In the murder case, prosecution psychiatrists deemed him sane, with an

average IQ. But two defense psychiatrists called him a schizophrenic unable to control his impulses.

Toward the end, Smith ordered his lawyers to drop their appeals.

The morning of his execution, he rode in a four-car motorcade from Graterford prison to Bellefonte. He spent the day in one of six triple-locked, death-row cells, where he was bathed, shaved, fed, fingerprinted, photographed, weighed, dressed in blue-and-white prison clothes and allowed to read the Bible. A prison chaplain visited five times to pray with him.

At 8:55 p.m., the cell was unlocked. Smith was led 13 paces to the death chamber as the chaplain walked ahead of him.

Minutes later, Pennsylvania's 350th electrocution was over. As a doctor pronounced Elmo Smith dead, a prison official lifted the phone to notify the governor.

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