David Strowhouer was not yet at the defense table. Not yet seated there, in chains, where the six-time DUI offender would soon struggle to reach his shackled arm forward enough to sign his name on a murder plea that would commit him to prison for up to 85 years. But at the back of the Delaware County courtroom, Richard DeRosa was seething.
In their own way, so were many of us. It was Thursday morning, and as this tragedy was about to reach a milestone in the Philadelphia suburbs, another was still unfolding in the city itself. Staggering details were emerging about the violent criminal history of a man who had shot six police officers the night before. A man who, like Strowhouer, also had been free despite a lengthy and hair-raising rap sheet.
Strowhouer, with five prior DUI convictions, had squandered his freedom and killed Deana Eckman and badly hurt her husband, Chris, while drunk and behind the wheel of a pickup truck on Route 452 one night in February. Maurice Hill, a former federal convict who was known to local and federal authorities, fired so many bullets Wednesday during a police raid of a North Philadelphia house that children in a nearby day care center had cowered in a stairwell for hours.
These two cases alone are enough to make an ordinary citizen wonder: Is this the best our criminal justice system can do? The problem is, they’re not the only head-shaking examples from this year. And that is a very big problem.
For DeRosa, the guilty plea — while helping the family avoid trial — was too little too late. Strowhouer had been in and out of courts, jails, and rehab for over a decade. Still, there he was, free in February to kill Deana with his sixth DUI. The laws and the people charged with enforcing them had collectively fallen short.
“Everybody screwed up — the judges, the prosecutors, the parole board,” DeRosa, an engineer who has dissected the case, told me in a semi-whisper from the back of the courtroom. “The prosecutors let him get charged" with lower-level DUI offenses. "The judges consistently sentenced him at the minimum of the guidelines, and then the parole board. They’re the ones that I could grab by the throat.”
“I’m incensed by what the criminal justice system did," he said, "in allowing my daughter to die.”
In just the last few weeks alone, the criminal justice system has demonstrated some other pretty spectacular inadequacies — and that was before the Wednesday shootout during which Hill, allegedly with an AR-15 assault weapon, sparked a nearly eight-hour standoff with police.
Last month, King of Prussia wife-killer Rafael Robb nearly won permission to travel to Israel while on probation. This was after he’d served only 10 years in prison. The former University of Pennsylvania economics professor still owed over $125 million in civil damages to his daughter for bludgeoning her mother to death in a fit of rage.
Thanks to a glaring loophole in the Pennsylvania criminal justice bureaucracy, his late wife’s family hadn’t been told he was looking to leave the country. Montgomery County prosecutors found out at the last minute, to their horror.
Then we have the mystery surrounding VIP inmate Jeffrey Epstein, the New York financier who was friends with Prince Andrew, President Donald Trump, former President Bill Clinton and many other of the world’s most prominent, powerful people.
Epstein was in federal lockup after being arrested at an airport earlier this year. He was on suicide watch after nearly taking his own life. Still, somehow, he supposedly died by suicide while in the cell of a maximum security Manhattan prison — a facility overseen by Trump’s powerful U.S. Justice Department. That’s the same agency that planned to put Epstein on trial, finally, after giving him a pass a decade earlier on his alleged sex trafficking crimes.
All of this was swirling in the air Thursday morning as Strowhouer, 30, sat through a grim hearing and accepted a third-degree murder plea. You felt bad for everyone. How in the world had our criminal justice system been so inadequate in keeping this man from harming others?
He killed Deana Eckman while drunk after his mother’s funeral. Deputy District Attorney Daniel McDevitt showed videos of Strowhouer stumbling out of a house and then, in short order, peeling out of a driveway in the truck that would minutes later leave Deana Eckman dead.
District Attorney Katayoun Copeland, who has been talking with Deana’s father and State Rep. Tom Killion to find fixes to the state’s DUI laws, agrees that the system fell short. One area that needs obvious improvement is sentencing guidelines. Anyone with that many DUIs should receive increasingly longer prison terms, she said. Under the law, that did not happen with Strowhouer.
“We can only work with what we are dealt,” Copeland said. “Then the issue becomes, what do we need to do differently?”
Three months from now, Strowhouer will be sentenced. With a woman now dead in his wake and his own life reduced to a scribble on a plea agreement.