Zettlemoyer Executed For 1980 Killing Of Pal He's The First To Be Put To Death In Pa. Since Elmo Smith Died In Chair In '62

Posted: May 03, 1995

BELLEFONTE, Pa. — The man who wanted to die got his wish last night.

Keith Zettlemoyer, 39, became the first person to be executed in Pennsylvania in 33 years when he was injected with fatal fluids in the execution chamber of Rockview state prison. He was pronounced dead at 10:25 p.m.

Zettlemoyer, a native of Selinsgrove, had fired his lawyers and begged the courts to let him die.

"I see my execution as an end of suffering to my imprisonment - a blessed, merciful release from all these health symptoms that I'm constantly suffering with," he said in testimony before the U.S. Court of Appeals on Saturday.

Zettlemoyer was convicted in Dauphin County of the October 1980 killing of Charles DeVetsco, 30, a friend who planned to testify against him in a robbery trial.

In a statement written in the hours leading to the execution, Zettlemoyer asked for forgiveness from the people.

"I ask that the people of Pennsylvania and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania please accept my 14 years of imprisonment and my execution now as all of my debt to society paid in full," he said.

Gov. Ridge, who had signed Zettlemoyer's execution warrant, issued a statement saying, "Nearly 15 years ago, Keith Zettlemoyer brutally murdered his friend Charles DeVetsco. May Keith Zettlemoyer's soul rest in peace. May the soul of Charles DeVetsco now rest in peace."

Despite Zettlemoyer's wishes, also expressed in letters, last-minute efforts were still being made yesterday to stop the execution, the state's first by lethal injection.

The state Supreme Court rejected the latest appeal for a stay of execution at about 9:45 p.m.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to grant a stay to hear the appeal earlier last evening. The court had heard the case three times.

The Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Post-Conviction Defender Organization argued in those and other appeals that Zettlemoyer took psychotropic drugs and was not mentally competent to make a rational decision about his death.

But three psychiatrists testified Saturday that Zettlemoyer was sane.

"I'm not crazy. I'm not loony. I understand perfectly what's going on with the execution and everything," Zettlemoyer said.

Nevertheless, the defender group fired off appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court, the state Supreme Court and the Common Pleas Court of Dauphin County, where Zettlemoyer had been convicted of killing DeVetsco in a weed-choked lot in Dauphin County.

A police officer saw him emerge from the bushes with a smoking .357 magnum in his hand.

But even Aldona DeVetsco, 79, the mother of Zettlemoyer's victim, joined with the defender organization to try to stop the execution. She is opposed to the death penalty.

Outside the white stone prison blanketed in spotlights last night, death penalty foes held a candlelight vigil.

More than 150 people walked a mile and a half along the muddy berm of busy Route 26 as tractor- trailers rumbled by, then stood in the darkness holding signs and candles, awaiting the moment of truth.

"Since when do two wrongs make a right?," asked Brigitte Cooke, of Lewisburg. "This is premeditated murder. It doesn't make any sense to me why we pay so much time and money on premeditated murder."

Dean Tuttle, 85, of State College, walked the route with his wife, Shirley, 76, because execution is against their religion. They are Quakers.

"This is not the way to prevent people from killing," said Tuttle, adding that he would walk even farther if it could stop the killing.

In Harrisburg, about 30 death penalty opponents endured a chilly, early spring mist to hold a quiet protest in front of Gov. Ridge's mansion about two hours before the scheduled execution.

Clutching little white candles, the members of the group stood in a semicircle outside the front gate of the mansion. There was no sign of Ridge.

As Zettlemoyer's zero hour approached, even officials supporting the death penalty found the reality more difficult than the theory.

Ridge, after attending a State Police ceremony, said it was "a difficult day personally . . . The death penalty is not part of the job that anybody

relishes."

But he added he had no second thoughts about signing death warrants.

On the floor of the state Senate, one of the sponsors of the death penalty law, Sen. Michael Fisher, R-Allegheny, agreed with Ridge and said it was a difficult day for the entire state.

Still, Fisher said, "May 2, 1995, will in fact be a historic day in the Commonwealth, a day a step in the right direction was taken to bring safety and make Pennsylvania a safer place."

But Sen. Vincent Fumo, D-Philadelphia, said the state was doing little more than assisting Zettlemoyer to commit suicide.

"Now we begin a new chapter in Pennsylvania history. We begin a feeding frenzy of homicide by state government . . . It's a sad day in Pennsylvania. My prayer is there won't be many more sad days, but my mind tells me there'll be a lot more before there are happy days in this commonwealth."

Robert Dunham, executive director of the defender organization, said Zettlemoyer authorized his group to prepare appeals on his behalf before the death warrant was signed.

But Dunham said Zettlemoyer changed his mind after being sent to Death Row. His desire to die was not a free choice, but a by-product of mental illness, medication, and the accumulated stress of being on death row for 14 years, Dunham said.

"After he changed his mind, the Department of Corrections refused to let us communicate with him," Dunham said.

Dunham was on the phone with a Daily News reporter at 9:45 p.m. when he got word that the state Supreme Court had turned down the group's appeal.

He uttered an obscenity.

After a heavy, silent pause, he said: "It's over."

Then he changed his tone. "Actually, it's not over," he said. "It's just begun."

"Keith Zettlemoyer's case illustrates why so many people have deep reservations about our ability to impose the death penalty fairly. Do we feel safer tonight? Are we better people tonight? Is their faith in the fairness of the judicial system greater tonight than it was before Keith Zettlemoyer was executed? I think they answer themselves."

Zettlemoyer twice previously had been scheduled to die. He received one stay from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and one from former Gov. Dick Thornburgh.

The last person to be executed in Pennsylvania was Elmo Smith, who died in the electric chair in 1962 for the 1958 sex slaying of 16-year-old Roxborough schoolgirl Maryann Theresa Mitchell.

Smith was the 350th and last inmate to die in Pennsylvania's electric chair. Since the Supreme Court allowed states to resume the death penalty in 1976, Pennsylvania has scheduled 34 executions.

The lack of executions in the state has been a political issue for years.

Ridge signed five execution warrants in his first 100 days in office and

plans to sign warrants for all Death Row inmates within 90 days after their sentences are upheld.

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