At 3 years old, Lisa Hart was taken to the Montgomery County grave where her murdered parents lay buried in the same casket, their names on the same gray tombstone. She ran around calling for her mother and father, wondering why they didn’t come out to play.
She had been only 7 months old in January 1984, when two men barged into her family’s East Mount Airy home, strangling her father, Bradley Hart, 25, and drowning her mother, Ferne, 30, in an upstairs bathtub. The little girl was left in the house to die, but survived. Her father’s parents, the Rev. B. Sam Hart, a nationally known evangelist, and his wife, Joyce, would later tell her of that visit to Whitemarsh Memorial Park in Ambler.
Lately, Hart has been reliving her parents’ murders from 35 years ago after learning that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office agreed with Robert Wharton, one of the two killers, that his death sentence should be vacated and that he should be resentenced to life in prison, the same punishment to which a jury in 1985 sentenced his accomplice, Eric Mason.
Although the DA’s Office was in contact with an uncle in Montgomery County, Hart said the office has not reached out to her.
“I was also a victim in this situation,” said Hart, 36, a stay-at-home mother who lives in Texas with her husband and their 21-month-old daughter. “I feel as though they should have contacted me.”
Gov. Tom Wolf in 2015 imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania. The last person executed by the state was the infamous Philadelphia basement torture killer Gary Heidnik, in 1999. Still, when an inmate is removed from death row and resentenced to life in prison, he is moved into the general prison population and obtains more visitation rights and time out of his cell.
“They’re not even putting anyone to death in Pennsylvania. So essentially, his death sentence is a life sentence,” Hart said of Wharton, adding that she didn’t understand why the DA’s Office wants his sentence changed. “All it does is it gives him extra privileges. Why does he need extra privileges? I don’t get it. I feel like it’s a slap in the face to the justice that we got.”
A federal judge has yet to rule on Wharton’s appeal.
A battle between offices
In court filings over the summer, the Attorney General’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office have been battling over the Wharton case, revealing a divide between the two offices.
District Attorney Larry Krasner, a former criminal defense attorney-turned-progressive prosecutor, had vowed on the campaign trail to “never seek the death penalty.” In other death-row cases, his office has turned to “prosecutorial discretion” in arguing for death sentences to be vacated.
On July 15, Krasner filed a brief in the state Supreme Court in another case, that of Philadelphia death-row inmate Jermont Cox, asking the high court to “hold that the death penalty, as it has been applied, violates the Pennsylvania Constitution’s ban on cruel punishments.”
Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a former Montgomery County commissioner, has said he supports the death penalty for “the most heinous of crimes.” His spokesperson, Jacklin Rhoads, said Friday that since taking office, Shapiro “has not sought the death penalty in any cases.”
The AG’s Office has opposed Krasner’s office on narrow legal issues involving death-row inmate cases, including the DA’s willingness to overturn jury-imposed death sentences by prosecutorial discretion.
U.S. District Judge Mitchell Goldberg in May asked the AG’s Office to weigh in on Wharton’s case, after he found that the DA’s Office was conceding the death penalty “without exploring whether contrary views may be viable and worth considering” in Wharton’s remaining appellate claim regarding his adjustment to prison over seven years.
The AG’s Office, in its July 22 brief, wrote that records show that Wharton had adjusted poorly to prison, not positively, as Wharton claimed. It pointed out two searches of Wharton’s cell in May 1989 in which authorities found hidden pieces of metal that could have been used for escape, including one fashioned into a handcuff key.
“Evidence of Wharton’s full record,” wrote Chief Deputy Attorney General James Barker, showed that “Wharton was an escape artist.” Barker also noted that in April 1986, after Wharton was brought from prison to Philadelphia City Hall for a hearing in an unrelated home-invasion robbery case, he escaped from deputy sheriffs and ran down the stairs of City Hall. A deputy shot and wounded him, and he was arrested outside.
Barker also contended that the DA’s Office, although it had contacted one of Bradley Hart’s brothers, the Rev. Tony Hart, still failed to meet its obligations under federal and state law to notify the victims’ family of its change in stance on the death penalty in Wharton’s case. The AG’s Office included in its public filing copies of letters it obtained from Lisa Hart, Tony Hart, and two other relatives, in which they asked for Wharton’s death sentence to remain.
In her letter, Lisa Hart wrote that the DA’s change in stance on Wharton’s sentence “is an affront to justice and has shown a total disregard for the life of my parents, my own life, and the impact that this would have on our family.”
Paul George, assistant supervisor of the DA’s Law Division, in an Aug. 1 response to the AG’s brief, called that office’s representation of his office’s interactions with the victims’ family “misleading.” He attached an affidavit signed by a victim/witness coordinator for the office, Heather Wames, in which she wrote that on Jan. 23, she had spoken with Tony Hart and “advised him that the office intended to agree to death penalty relief.” Wames also wrote that she had asked Tony Hart to give other relatives her contact information.
Tony Hart, 65, senior pastor at the Montco Bible Fellowship and president of the Grand Old Gospel Fellowship, both in Lansdale, told The Inquirer this month that during his January conversation with Wames, he understood that the DA’s Office was still “deciding what to do.”
It wasn’t until someone in the AG’s Office contacted him, he said, that he understood that the DA’s Office was not going to defend the death penalty in Wharton’s case. He then told Lisa Hart about the DA’s change in stance.
A cassette tape
In phone interviews this month, Lisa Hart recalled how as a child the details of her parents’ deaths in the hours after the intruders arrived on the night of Jan. 30, 1984, came to her in bits and pieces.
When she was about 8, her paternal grandparents sat her down on their bed in West Mount Airy and Sam Hart told her in his calm and strong voice how “he found me close to my mother’s body,” she said.
She likely had crawled to the second-floor bathroom from her bedroom, she said. Checking on his son’s family three days later on Feb. 2, 1984, Sam Hart found his granddaughter next to her mother’s body, then carried her out of the house.
As she grew older, Lisa Hart began searching for more details about her parents in her maternal grandparents’ one-story house in Nassau, Bahamas, where she grew up in her mother’s childhood bedroom. After her grandfather, the Rev. F. Edward Allen, an evangelist, and his wife, Velma, went to sleep, she would look in what she called the “junk room” — an extra room with a small dresser, bookshelves, and a closet filled with her mother’s clothes.
There she found a VHS tape of her mother before her mother left to go to Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts school in western New York; letters her mother had sent home about her blossoming relationship with Bradley Hart; and a cassette tape inside a cardboard box tucked in the closet.
Lisa Hart was about 15 when she found the cassette tape, which she had heard about from a family friend. It came from her grandparents’ old answering machine. She took the tape back to her bedroom to play it. It was from the day in 1984 when her great-uncle Charles Hart in Philadelphia called her maternal grandparents in the Bahamas to tell them that their daughter and her husband had been killed.
The answering machine picked up just before Edward Allen answered the phone. As the conversation continued, the tape kept recording.
In a shaky voice, her great-uncle told her grandfather that Bradley and Ferne Hart had been killed, said Lisa Hart, describing the contents of the tape to The Inquirer. As her grandfather’s voice started to break and he got emotional, his wife was heard in the background, panicking and saying: “What’s happening? What’s happening?”
Hart recalls sitting on her bed with the tape. “I must have cried the rest of the night,” she said.
Double death sentences
Wharton, 56, is on death row at the State Correctional Institution-Phoenix in Montgomery County.
He and Mason were 20-year-old construction workers from Germantown when they forced their way at knifepoint into the Harts’ house on Pleasant Street. Wharton sought revenge after not being paid for construction work at a religious radio station in Phoenixville managed by Bradley Hart and owned by his father, the Rev. B. Sam Hart, Assistant District Attorney Thomas Bello told jurors at the defendants’ 1985 trial.
The assailants tied up the two victims and watched TV for several hours. Mason then took Bradley Hart to the basement, where he plunged Hart’s face into a bucket of water and strangled him with an electrical cord. Wharton, meanwhile, took Ferne Hart to the upstairs bathroom. He bound her face with duct tape, choked her with a necktie, and partially undressed her, according to court records. “I dunked her head in the water,” he told police. “I held her head down in the water till the bubbles stopped after a while.”
The jury imposed two death sentences on Wharton and gave Mason life in prison. Afterward, Bello told The Inquirer at the time: “The only difference between the two was that one killed a woman and the other killed a man. And the jury was made up of two men and 10 women.” (Bello, who rejoined the DA’s Office in February as a supervisor after nearly 30 years as a defense attorney, has since declined to comment on the case.)
In 1992, after the state Supreme Court vacated Wharton’s sentence because of an erroneous jury instruction, a second jury again imposed his double death sentence.
Wharton’s sole remaining claim before Goldberg is whether Wharton’s former lawyer was ineffective for failing to tell the jury about Wharton’s alleged positive adjustment to prison between his two sentencing hearings.
In a court filing last month, Wharton’s federal public defenders argued that his “prison record is more positive than the Attorney General makes it appear.”
‘Don’t rewrite history’
Lisa Hart said that although she could understand that Krasner would not seek the death penalty in future cases, she couldn’t understand how he would “tamper with” past cases. “Don’t rewrite history,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear arguments in a Philadelphia City Hall courtroom in Cox’s case and that of another death-row inmate, Kevin Marinelli of Northumberland County. The Philadelphia DA’s Office is expected to side with federal public defenders representing both men in arguing that the death penalty is unconstitutional.
The AG’s Office, which represents the commonwealth in Marinelli’s case, is expected to take an opposing position, arguing that the death-penalty issue should be resolved by the legislature, not the court.
The justices’ eventual decision could affect not just future death-penalty cases, but also the approximately 130 other death-sentenced inmates in the state, including Wharton.