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Ministry of the condemned"

Nicole Brambila
First Prize - $10,000

Nicole C. Brambila is an award-winning investigative reporter with 15 years of experience at newspapers in Texas, California and Pennsylvania. Nicole is a previous First Place Amy Writing Awards winner in 2004, for a perspective piece on abortion. A graduate of Texas State University, Nicole lives in Wyomissing, PA and reports for the Reading Eagle.  


About this series: A five-day look at Pennsylvania's controversial death penalty system from the perspectives of those it touches: victims' families, a prosecutor and defense attorney, judges and the condemned. This is just one part of the five-day series. Click here to read the entire series. 

 © Reprinted with permission.  The Reading Eagle; Reading, PA;  published 12/15/2015


STATE COLLEGE - The Rev. Henry “Harry” Covert stood over the gurney and silently prayed.


Convicted killer Keith Zettlemoyer lay strapped down, minutes from a lethal cocktail of barbiturates and paralyzing drugs being injected into his veins. Covert lingered a moment, a jumble of emotions. He had just spent the day with Zettlemoyer, whom he now calls a friend, and what would be the convicted killer’s final hours.


Zettlemoyer looked up at Covert and asked, "What will you tell people about tonight?"


Covert was caught off guard. He had fervently prayed for their meeting and about being a vessel for the Lord to minister to Zettlemoyer. He had prayed for God’s peace to settle on Zettlemoyer as the killer’s last hours wound down and his execution neared. But he had not considered what would happen afterward. Covert thought, “What an odd question.”


“I have no idea,” Covert told Zettlemoyer, who was then wheeled into the execution chamber at Rockview State Prison.


Minutes later at 10:25 p.m. on May 2, 1995, Zettlemoyer was pronounced dead.


Zettlemoyer, 39, was the first of three inmates executed in the commonwealth since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978. Pennsylvania’s governors, however, have signed more than 400 death warrants the past three decades. Those three executions have come to symbolize all that’s wrong with the death penalty, which has cost taxpayers more than $350 million for a system that hasn’t executed anyone in 16 years.


Although Covert was at a loss of words for Zettlemoyer then, the life lessons thrust upon him two decades ago in a holding cell 30 feet from the execution chamber have stayed with him as the years rolled by.


“I've come to realize that the worst of people can change,” said the 73-year-old retired United Church of Christ minister and former cop, who now lives in Mount Joy, Lancaster County. “Not all do, but God wants all people to come to repentance.”


He didn’t have an answer for Zettlemoyer on the eve of his execution, but today what Covert tells people about the hours he spent on death row is as simple as it is profound: “In the darkest places in life – even in an execution chamber – we find the forgiveness and the grace of almighty God.”


‘Only shooting rats’

Zettlemoyer turned the 1967 Ford van onto a dirt access road in the wee hours of Oct. 13, 1980, near the Harrisburg railroad yards.


In the back of the van lay his friend, Charles DeVetsco, with two .22-caliber slugs in his neck. Zettlemoyer parked, then dragged DeVetsco, handcuffed and bleeding, into the bushes in an unlit area used for dumping trash.


In the bushes, Zettlemoyer squeezed off two more rounds, this time in DeVetsco’s back with a .357 magnum.


Two Conrail police officers on routine patrol in the area that morning heard the gunshots ring out. Hearing rustling noises in some overgrown bushes in front of the van, they ordered Zettlemoyer, then 25, to come out. He emerged wearing dark clothes and gloves. He also was armed to the hilt, carrying a Smith and Wesson revolver with 41 rounds of ammunition, a hunting knife and a tear gas canister.


“What’s the matter guys?” Zettlemoyer asked the officers, according to court records. “I was only shooting rats.”


“At 4 o’clock in the morning?” Officer Gregory W. Benedek responded.


“Yes, I do it all the time,” Zettlemoyer said.


Officers retraced Zettlemoyer’s path into the woods, following the drag marks and blood drippings. They found DeVetsco’s still-trembling body face down. DeVetsco, 30, was set to testify against Zettlemoyer the following week in a burglary trial. He died of massive hemorrhaging, his heart pierced by the .357 magnum bullets.


Prosecutors had offered Zettlemoyer a plea bargain, which he rejected, opting rather to take his chances with a jury.


At his murder trial, Zettlemoyer did not deny killing DeVetsco. Instead, he presented a diminished-capacity defense. Recognized as grounds for reducing charges, diminished capacity is an unbalanced state of mind that makes a person less culpable for a crime.


A Dauphin County jury rejected Zettlemoyer's defense and sentenced him to death.


‘I am not crazy’

A little more than a month after taking office, Gov. Tom Ridge signed three death warrants - including Zettlemoyer’s - on Feb. 28, 1995, with the promise to expedite executions.


The other two condemned inmates - Martin Appel and Josoph Henry, both of Northampton County - would win new sentencing trials and plead to life.


Zettlemoyer appealed his case as well, but the courts continued to uphold his sentence. After 14 years on death row, Zettlemoyer dropped his appeals and became the first person in the commonwealth to be executed since 1962, when Elmo Smith sat in the electric chair for the rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl in Montgomery County.


The mother of Zettlemoyer’s victim, Aldona DeVetsco, filed a petition on behalf of her son’s killer to halt his execution. In a last-ditch effort, Zettlemoyer’s attorney raised claims that he was mentally ill, meaning his execution would amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

Aldona DeVetsco, who died in 2004, defended her opposition to the death penalty in interviews calling capital punishment senseless vengeance.


“Life is sacred,” DeVetsco once said in an interview with a Philadelphia TV station. “It’s about the only sacred thing on Earth - and no one has a right to do away with it.”


Not all of the DeVetsco family shared the matriarch’s views, though.


“I am not as principled as mother was,” said Daphne DeVetsco, Charles DeVetsco’s younger sister, who lives in Lakewood, Ohio. “Being a liberal, I didn’t believe in the death penalty, until it touched me.”


Three days before his scheduled execution, Zettlemoyer begged the court to execute him.

“If it’s stopped, sir, my 14 1/2 years of suffering will continue on in an unbroken chain for maybe another 14, 20 or 25 years,” Zettlemoyer said, according to court transcripts. “The thought of all that is just deeply disturbing.”


Zettlemoyer further told the three-judge panel that he hoped it was apparent that he was not mentally incompetent.

“I am not crazy,” Zettlemoyer said. “I’m not loony. I understand perfectly what’s going on with my execution.”


'Nobody wants to be part of an execution’

Since opening a century ago, 351 men and two women have been executed at Rockview.  The campus houses more than 2,300 inmates and is located roughly 140 miles northwest of Reading in Centre County.


Built to ease prison overcrowding and opened in 1915, the medium-security facility sits on 4,300 acres, but is visible from the thoroughfare. Its main building is an imposing but elegant structure on a manicured lawn facing a tree-lined street less than 2 miles from Nittany Mall in State College.


Though the facility does not house death row inmates, all executions in Pennsylvania are carried out at Rockview.


While Covert served as chaplain at Rockview, the execution team ran through detailed simulation drills in the chamber that included strapping a prison employee in the electric chair.


“Every time a warrant was signed by the governor we went through a drill,” Covert said.


Zettlemoyer would not be electrocuted, but in the weeks leading up to his execution, prison staff practiced running through the protocols and procedures. A few officials even traveled to Texas – the nation's death penalty capital – in preparation for the first execution by lethal injection in the commonwealth.


A condemned inmate in Pennsylvania can choose to have a family member or spiritual leader stay with them. Zettlemoyer chose a chaplain.


A day before Zettlemoyer arrived at Rockview, John McCullough learned the inmate had requested to spend his last day with a chaplain, and that he would have to find one.


McCullough, who was then deputy superintendent for treatment at Rockview, made three or four frustrating calls before he thought of Covert, who had left in January to pastor a church.


“The churches didn’t want to touch it,” McCullough said. “Nobody wants to be part of an execution.”


What made Covert so perfect for the job, more than his experience with inmates, McCullough said, was that he wasn’t preachy.


“What this guy needs on his way out is a companion,” McCullough said. “Harry can be very reassuring.”


The phone rang at Covert's home in Potters Mills, an expansive property with a stunning view of a hillside dotted with horses, a quick 20-minute drive from Rockview. Despite his years ministering in prison, Covert wasn't sure what to expect.


He met Zettlemoyer in a holding cell on the second floor after flipping through his prison file to gain some sense of the man.


What Covert found was a repentant man, one with a deep faith.


Covert said, “I wasn't expecting someone who had a sense of assurance and peace.”


‘Paid in full’

Zettlemoyer had a born-again experience on death row a decade before giving up his appeals.


Having spent 14 years in solitary confinement, Zettlemoyer had never attended a church service, never experienced being part of a community of believers. His faith, on death row, was a solitary one.


Zettlemoyer told Covert, “You’re my pastor now, until I die.”


The two spoke of many things during those seven hours, much of it lost to time and fading memories. But Covert does remember Zettlemoyer speaking candidly about his drug abuse and fondly about this family. They chatted about the theological implications of Zettlemoyer giving up his appeals: Was it, Zettlemoyer wondered, akin to committing suicide?


And Zettlemoyer also spoke of a haunting guilt.


Covert assumed Zettlemoyer was talking about the murder. He wasn’t, though. In his book, “Ministry to the Incarcerated,” Covert talks about the torture Zettlemoyer described, reliving the 1980 murder. But what also deeply troubled Zettlemoyer was the eternal consequences of killing DeVetsco.


Zettlemoyer told Covert, “I think when I took his life, that I took away the possibility in his own life to come to repentance and receive salvation.”


Covert had gone to Rockview to minister to Zettlemoyer. But it was the condemned inmate who ministered to him, Covert said. Zettlemoyer sung a capella hymns in his cell, and he partook in Holy Communion, a surreal experience Covert described as like going to church.


And as his execution approached, Zettlemoyer told Covert, “I know where I’m going to spend eternity.”


The first person in the commonwealth to be executed in more than three decades, Zettlemoyer’s execution made national news with media outlets describing the protesters who gathered outside Rockview and the governor’s mansion.


Inside the prison, from the cell block windows, inmates could be heard screaming at corrections staff, “Killers!”


Zettlemoyer was afraid of needles. A doctor gave him a Valium so he wouldn’t vomit.


Then a three-member injection team administered the lethal cocktail in a tube threaded in a 10-inch hole in the wall in a separate room where the executioners watched Zettlemoyer through a one-way mirror.


In a statement distributed after his execution, Zettlemoyer wrote, in part, “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.”


A dozen witnesses, half of whom were journalists, sat in folding chairs behind a Plexiglas window watching Zettlemoyer rapidly breathe until his face turned crimson.


Zettlemoyer could not explain how he knew God had forgiven him. But in his book, Covert explains God's grace as clemency, quoting Eph. 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast.”


Covert said: “He was full of remorse. He knew that many people couldn’t forgive him, but that the Lord had forgiven him.”


Published in The Reading Eagle, Tuesday December 15, 2015

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