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2 decades after brother killed, man could leave prison

October 6, 2018

YORK, Pa. (AP) — If Sue and Ron Witman dream of ever having a normal, suburban life, they keep those dreams to themselves.

On Jan. 6, 2019, their son, Zach, now 35, is eligible for his first parole hearing.

By then, he will have served 15 years and 230 days in a county jail and then a state correctional institution in Pennsylvania for the murder of his younger brother, Greg, 13, a popular student at Southern Middle School and an avid soccer player.

In February, after maintaining his innocence for more than 19 years, Zach accepted an offer from the prosecution to plead guilty to third-degree murder. For the first time since his arrest, he admitted to committing the crime. “Yes, I can say I killed my brother by stabbing,” he said at his plea hearing.

Tuesday marks the 20th anniversary of the gruesome murder that shocked and horrified the people of New Freedom, a quiet and idyllic bedroom community of about 4,500 in southern York County.

The case continues to draw intrigue decades later, whether it’s because of the repulsive nature of the killing, the mysteries some believe still surround the case or its unexpected mention in the popular podcast “Serial.”

The Witmans have bought a house in Lancaster County with the intent that their son will stay there with them for however long he wants or is required to by authorities. Meanwhile, they plan to sell their New Freedom home where Greg was killed. But, otherwise, they’re not entirely sure what’s next.

Ron and Sue Witman have supported their son’s claim of innocence for 20 years, but declined to talk about the case since his guilty plea.

“Ron and I will do our best to guide him,” Sue Witman said in a recent interview. “We will do anything and everything we can to give Zach as normal a life as he can.”

Added Ron Witman: “We support Zach 100 percent and continue to do so.”

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On Oct. 2, 1998, Zach, who was 15, stabbed and slashed his brother more than 100 times with a penknife, nearly decapitating him.

Zach called 911. Police found Greg’s mutilated body in the laundry room of the Witmans’ home.

Days later, law enforcement arrested and charged Zach in the killing. He stood trial about 4 1/2 years later.

Because of the publicity surrounding the case, jurors were picked in Montgomery County and bused to York County for the trial.

On May 21, 2003, Zach was found guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to the only punishment then available under the law: life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“I would like to say that I have always loved my brother, and I will always love my brother and I miss him,” Zach, then 20, told Common Pleas Judge John C. Uhler at sentencing. “And I would never do anything to hurt him, and I hope and think someday people will see that. That’s all.”

While the Witmans have always maintained that their oldest son is innocent, they’ve raised questions about the evidence, including how a knife with a plastic handle and a 1 3/4-inch blade could have inflicted the devastating injuries without breaking.

Zach was granted a new trial in 2007 due to ineffective counsel, but the Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed that ruling.

Then, in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Miller v. Alabama, ruled that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole against those who commit crimes before they’ve turned 18 were unconstitutional. But the justices didn’t make the decision retroactive.

That changed in 2016, with Montgomery v. Louisiana. Zach instantly became one of more than 500 so-called “juvenile lifers” in Pennsylvania who was entitled to be resentenced.

While preparing for that eventuality in 2018, Samuel Encarnacion, Zach’s attorney, discovered that prior defense counsel in the case hadn’t advised his client of a plea offer before trial in 2003. When Common Pleas Judge Michael E. Bortner was apprised of that fact, he set aside the conviction and life sentence and granted a new trial.

But, before a hearing could be held, the York County District Attorney’s Office extended a second plea offer: third-degree murder in exchange for a sentence of 15 years and 230 days to 40 years in prison.

Zach, with no explanation beyond his new-found willingness to plead guilty, took the deal. Days later, that agreement was brought before the judge.

Zach Witman 2003 prosecutor, Tom Kelley gives details about the case he remains supremely confident that he helped convict the right person. Paul Kuehnel and Rick Lee, York Daily Record

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In almost two decades of court hearings, Zach has rarely spoken beyond answering “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” to the judges who have presided over his case. His one-sentence admission at the plea hearing that he, in fact, killed Greg, was the longest statement he has made on record since he denied killing his brother at sentencing.

During the hearing, it was Chief Deputy Prosecutor Tim Barker, one of the co-prosecutors from the murder trial, who did the vast majority of the talking. He qualified that his information all came from a prehearing conference with Zach and his attorney.

So, it was Barker who explained that, just home from school on Oct. 2, 1998, Greg got mad at his brother. That’s because he hung up on a call from Greg’s girlfriend.

Greg wouldn’t drop the subject, telling his brother that he didn’t understand. Zach didn’t have a girlfriend himself.

Barker said Zach, with the intent of scaring his brother into shutting up, grabbed a pair of soccer goalie gloves and a small penknife and went downstairs.

When Greg continued to lecture, Zach stabbed him. That attack was not fatal though it knocked over a small table and left a pool of blood in the foyer, Barker said.

Greg fled toward the back of the house and a possible escape through the laundry room back door. But, Barker said, Zach caught up to Greg there and inflicted many more wounds, including the fatal cuts to his throat.

That said, Barker told the judge, the prosecution does “not view Mr. Witman as a risk” to the public now.

Despite Zach’s inability in court to explain what happened in his own words, Bortner accepted the guilty plea.

“Your case has dominated the attention of this community like I’ve never seen,” Bortner said at the time.

“I wish you well,” he later added. “I hope you and your family can find some peace.”

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Maria Finn, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, said Zach has not yet had an interview.

Two board members will participate in the interview because he’s considered a juvenile lifer, according to a state guide.

It’s unclear whether he will be released. Parole is a privilege, not a right. If he’s denied, Zach will get a document stating, in part, the reasons why, as well as when he will next be reviewed for parole.

Inmates facing release are expected to develop a plan for re-entering the community, including where they will live and work. They can apply for jobs or seek educational or vocational training.

“No one is released with a bus ticket,” said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel for the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.

In considering an inmate for parole, boards will examine a variety of factors, including a lack of disciplinary tickets, which are given for not following orders in prison.

They also will look for a history of drug or alcohol use and whether someone participated in general and skilled vocational education programs offered in prison, said Carmen Naso, senior instructor of law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Family members and prosecutors have said Zach has an exemplary prison record. He’s had no write-ups for infractions.

Some weight should be given to the facts of the murder in determining whether he should be paroled. But the facts of the case, Naso said, should not determine whether he gets parole.

Children do not act like adults, and that’s why the juvenile justice system exists. The emphasis is on rehabilitation.

“If over the last 14 years he has shown that he was rehabilitated and that the public is going to be safe if we release him from prison, then that’s pretty compelling to me,” Naso said.

Philadelphia has seen success with the release of juvenile lifers. About 100 have reintegrated back into the community. The Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project, for example, has been working to provide them support, such as with jobs, housing, education, health care and more.

No one who has been released has been convicted of any new crimes, Levick said. “This has been a very successful effort at reintegrating these individuals.”

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Zach did not reply to a letter sent to him at the State Correctional Institution at Smithfield.

In an interview, Tom Kelley, who was part of the team that prosecuted Zach in 2003, said he remains supremely confident that he helped convict the right person.

“There’s no doubt in my mind. Thirteen years as a prosecutor. Thirteen years as a judge,” said Kelley, who’s now a defense attorney in York. “I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.”

When asked what he thinks about the plea agreement, and the possibility that Zach could be released from prison, Kelley replied, “I don’t know.”

“I’d have to look in his eyes. Because when I looked in his eyes at the time, they were dark pools,” Kelley said. “There wasn’t much there.”

But Kelley said he also trusts the judgment of Barker, his co-counsel, and believed that the plea agreement was appropriate given the circumstances.

Barker said in an email that he’s not sure what he could possibly add at this point and would generally rest on the extensive record in the case.

Roger Goodfellow, who was the lead investigator in the case for the Southern Regional Police Department, said he had no comment about the possibility of Zach being released on parole.

Said Goodfellow: “It is what it is.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2OZc1Ed

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Information from: York Daily Record, http://www.ydr.com

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