Vacated death penalty for cop killer draws heavy fire

Posted: January 16, 2014

 PHILADELPHIA Edward Bracey had decided he was not going back to jail - and that no officer would stand in his way.

Driving a stolen Buick that February night in 1991, with a 9mm pistol in his lap, the wanted felon told a cohort: "No cop's going to thump on me."

So, when Bracey crashed his vehicle at Eighth Street and Germantown Avenue while evading a traffic stop, Bracey jumped out and leaped onto the hood of rookie patrolman Daniel Boyle's cruiser and assumed a "shooter's stance," according to court documents.

When Boyle tried to reverse, Bracey fired eight times, striking Boyle, 21, in the temple. Only seven months out of the academy, Boyle, the son of a police detective, died two days later, on Feb. 6.

That same day, Bracey, now 50, set himself on fire with nail polish remover as police closed in on him.

After he healed, he told investigators that he killed Boyle to avoid jail because he "had 10 years of back time and a bench warrant."

On Tuesday, nearly 22 years after a jury decided that Bracey should die - and after two decades of failed appeals - prosecutors, police, and Boyle's family blasted the decision of a Philadelphia judge last week to vacate the death sentence.

In a terse ruling handed down late Friday, Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina cited a constitutional restriction against executing people defined as mentally disabled.

Bracey had established that his intellectual functioning is "limited" or "subaverage," the judge wrote, and facts demonstrated that his IQ was 74. Sarmina also found that Bracey possessed "major deficiencies in adaptive behavior."

At a Tuesday news conference, prosecutors challenged Sarmina's decision, which came after a series of hearings in April. The appeal, they said, had not established that he was mentally disabled, and in previous appeals Bracey's own medical experts had testified that he was not. Those appeals failed.

Bracey's latest tactic is designed to exploit a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that makes it illegal to execute anyone deemed mentally disabled, said First Assistant District Attorney Edward McCann.

During a failed 1998 appeal, Bracey alleged that his trial lawyer had been ineffective for not presenting evidence about his mental health that might have spared him the death sentence.

But while his lawyers said he had some degree of brain damage, three defense experts pointedly said he was not mentally disabled, McCann said.

Bracey's claims of ineffective representation were dismissed by Common Pleas Court Judge C. Darnell Jones II , and that ruling was upheld by the state Supreme Court.

"Yet here we sit . . . a full generation after the murder of Police Officer Danny Boyle," McCann said, "and a court has ruled he is mentally retarded and not eligible to be executed."

In 2002, Bracey filed a second appeal, this time claiming he was mentally disabled. Over 12 years, the appeal wound its way to the state Supreme Court and back, landing in Sarmina's courtroom in April.

The District Attorney's Office will make a final determination on whether to appeal Sarmina's decision after she provides her full ruling, McCann said.

"However, I can say this for certain," McCann said. "The victim's family - who have done nothing but serve this city with strength and character, both before and after Danny's death - have questions about a process that can lead to a result like this, and I for one have no answers."

From Washington, where he was attending a conference of national prosecutors, District Attorney Seth Williams released a statement expressing disappointment in Sarmina's decision.

"The ruling is perplexing, and I can only imagine how devastating it is for the Boyle family. My thoughts and prayers go out to the Boyle family today."

Sarmina declined to comment Tuesday.

Billy Nolas, Bracey's public defender, did not return a call for comment.

Along with his father, three of Boyle's uncles were police officers.

After Boyle's death, his sister, Kathleen Boyle Wrigley, worked for the District Attorney's Office, assisting murder victims' families, McCann said. Now married to North Dakota Lt. Gov. Drew H. Wrigley, she has traveled back to Philadelphia for every recent hearing, McCann said.

Dozens of police officers and Boyle's family and friends gathered at Fraternal Order of Police headquarters Tuesday afternoon to stand in unity as Boyle's father, Patrick, discussed what he called "a miscarriage of justice."

Patrick Boyle said he was "floored" by the decision - and that "it mocks all that is right and fair."

Sitting through Bracey's repeated appeals since his sentencing, Patrick Boyle said, has only worsened the family's pain - and left it feeling powerless.

"We were pretty much like furniture in the courtroom" at April's hearing, he said. The family does not believe that Bracey is mentally handicapped, he added.

"After listening to all the testimony on the district attorney's side, I really felt that the only way she [Sarmina] could rule is for us," Boyle said. "I think it's an insult to our citizens who may be mentally challenged."

Police union president John McNesby on Monday night said Bracey had "pulled the wool over the judge's eyes."


mnewall@phillynews.com

215-854-2759 @MikeNewall

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