A South Side man, convicted in 2009 of killing SueAnn Brest and sentenced to death, will serve life in prison.
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania overturned the death sentence this month.
In its order of Oct. 7, the appeals court, which affirmed the conviction, did not find sufficient evidence that Spell, 48, formerly of Long Avenue, had intended to torture the victim. Torture had been the only aggravating factor considered by the jury that recommended the death penalty.
As a result, the court determined the death penalty, imposed by Lawrence County Judge J. Craig Cox on May 15, 2009, be vacated. The court ordered the case be returned to Lawrence County and that Cox impose a sentence of life imprisonment.
“There is insufficient evidence from the manner of death to indicate (Spell) sought to torture the victim. Neither is there actual evidence regarding the duration of the attack, the order of the blows or at what point in the attack the victim died.”
Brest, 40, formerly of Reynolds Street, died of head injuries. Her blood-covered, nude body was found March 1, 2007, in a parking lot near the Lawrence County vocational-technical school. Spell was arrested May 14, 2007.
A jury of nine women and three men deliberated for four hours following a four-day trial to convict Spell of first-degree murder and abuse of a corpse. The same jury deliberated another five hours to recommend the death penalty.
Spell had been defended by attorney Harry O. Falls formerly of the public defender’s office, and prosecuted by former district attorney John Bongivengo and William Flannery.
Last year, Dennis Elisco and Darrell Haeberle, both of the public defender’s office, raised four issues when arguing the appeal in Philadelphia. They questioned: if there was sufficient evidence to support the aggravating circumstance of torture, whether the trial court inappropriately admitted two photographs of the victim’s body, if the DNA expert in the course of the trial had improperly referred to Spell’s prior criminal record, and if the jury should have been instructed to consider voluntary manslaughter.
Flannery represented the prosecution.
The court ruled the record supports Spell’s first-degree murder conviction and the court rejects the defense’s guilt phase claims. However, in vacating the death sentence, the court ruled “the commonwealth was unable to present sufficient evidence to prove the existence of an aggravating circumstance of torture beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Spell, who did not testify at his trial, had maintained that “others were involved.” When his death sentence was imposed on May 15, 2009, Spell said the county had not heard the last of him.
“I’ll be another Hank Kimbell. I’ll be back on appeal.”
Thomas H. “Hank” Kimbell Jr. was convicted of murder in 1998 and sentenced to death. That conviction was overturned on appeal by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and in 2002, Kimbell was retried and acquitted of all charges.