EASTON, Pa. - A jury on Thursday sentenced George Hitcho Jr. -- the man convicted of killing a police officer last summer -- to death.
Five deputies stood at Hitcho's back as the foreman delivered the sentence shortly before 3 p.m. Thursday.
The verdict came as a bit of surprise since the jury asked Judge Anthony Beltrami about mercy earlier in the afternoon. The gallery was abuzz with speculation that Hitcho might receive life in prison.
Before leaving the courtroom in handcuffs, Hitcho told the judge, "Make sure you say goodbye to my mother for me."
Earlier, in his closing argument, District Attorney John Morganelli told the jury society must protect the police officers standing between it and chaos.
"The law gives them special status when they have the badge on and the uniform," he said, reminding jurors that killing an on-duty officer warrants the death penalty if it is not outweighed by any mitigating factors.
Mike Corrierre, the chief public defender, presented several mitigating factors, saying, "He [Hitcho] deserves to be in jail for the rest of his life, but he doesn't deserve the death sentence."
Since the trial began, Corrierre conceded that Hitcho shot and killed Ofc. Robert Lasso outside Hitcho's home in Freemansburg on Aug. 11, 2011. What he's disputed, however, is his mental state at the time of the murder.
Hitcho formed what Corrierre called "passive" intent to kill, rather than proactive. According to Corrierre, Hitcho's crime deserved a lighter sentence because of the way it unfolded. Hitcho's brain damage, which has been compared to early-onset dementia throughout the trial, caused him to react poorly to a chaotic situation.
But Morganelli doesn't think that's enough. He said the evidence shows Hitcho was not so impaired that he could not understand the situation and that he knew firing a shotgun could have lethal consequences. Many people have low IQs and difficult childhoods, but they don't all kill, he said.
As Morganelli reviewed the evidence against the defendant, Hitcho became visibly agitated and said, "I'm tired of hearing this." The judge interrupted the DA to ask Hitcho to whisper.
The prosecution argued that luck explains the only solid mitigating factor the defense has, which is Hitcho's lack of significant criminal convictions. Evidence presented throughout the trial showed Hitcho abused illegal drugs, abused his former wife, threatened a teenager, and vandalized a school. No charges resulted, Morganelli said, simply because nobody decided to file them. "I think he's had enough breaks."
Morganelli said giving Hitcho life in prison would "diminish" the tragedy that struck Lasso and his family last summer.
"You're not doing this to him. He did it to himself," Morganelli said, acknowledging the weighty task before the jury.
Allentown, PA 18102