Pennsylvania's drought of death sentences ended Friday when a Philadelphia jury sentenced Tam Minh Le to death for the horrific 2014 killings of two brothers who were beaten, stabbed and dumped into the Schuylkill.
It was the first death sentence imposed by a Common Pleas Court jury in Pennsylvania this year.
Le, 44, of Southwest Philadelphia, certainly met the criteria of the state's death penalty law. He was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder in the torture killings of Vu "Kevin" Huynh, 31, and his brother Viet Huynh, 28, both of Paoli.
According to trial testimony, the Huynh brothers sold large quantities of marijuana and owed Le and his associates $100,000. Instead of repaying the money, the brothers gambled it away.
On the night of Aug. 26, 2014, the Huynh brothers and their friend, Tan Voong, were beaten, blindfolded, and bound in Le's garage on 72nd Street near Grays Avenue. Voong, now 24, testified that besides Le, four masked men in the garage harassed them and beat them over the money.
The victims then were taken into Le's van and driven to the Schuylkill, north of the rowing grandstands on Kelly Drive, where they were repeatedly stabbed before being dumped into the river.
Voong survived to become the key witness against Le. After the van left, Voong waited a couple of hours and climbed out of the Schuylkill about 4 a.m. Aug. 27.
Le, who was convicted of manslaughter for a 1993 shooting death of a man in Rochester, N.Y., declined to make a statement before leaving the courtroom in custody. Le will now be transferred to one of the four state prisons for men that have "death rows." There he will be in a cell for 23 hours a day until his sentence is overturned – or he is executed.
Philadelphia may generate two more death sentences before the year is out.
Currently, Ibrahim Muhammed and Nalik Scott, both 35, are on trial before a Common Pleas Court jury in the deadly Sept. 6, 2011 robbery at Lorena's Grocery in which the owner, Porfirio Nunez, 50, his wife, Juana Nunez, 44, and his sister Lina Sanchez, 48, were shot to death.
If the jury finds the pair guilty of first-degree murder, it will begin hearing evidence to determine if they should be sentenced to death or life in prison without parole.
According to state prison officials, 174 men and one woman are awaiting execution by lethal injection. It won't happen anytime soon.
Last December, the state Supreme Court affirmed Gov. Wolf's then-11-month-old policy of granting reprieves to all inmates facing imminent execution pending the report of a legislative task force studying the fairness and effectiveness of the use of capital punishment in Pennsylvania.
The state Senate authorized the task force in 2011. The task force was to have issued its report in December 2013, but the deadline has been extended.
Pennsylvania has executed just three men since capital punishment was reenacted 38 years ago, the last in 1999.
Nor have juries in Pennsylvania's 67 counties seemed especially eager to condemn fellow citizens to death. In 2015, juries in three counties – Bucks, Monroe and Washington – imposed death sentences, the same number as in 2014. Over the last decade, the number of death sentences in Pennsylvania has been in a general decline from a high of nine in 2005.
The downward trend in Pennsylvania mirrors what is happening nationwide, where death sentences have declined from 140 in 2005 to 49 in 2015, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center.
During that same time period, actual executions have also declined from 60 to 28 last year and 20 so far in 2016. Since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court laid the foundation for the modern use of the death penalty, Texas had led the nation in the number of people put to death: 538, including 13 last year and 7 so far this year.
Still, Pennsylvania ranks fifth in death row population among the 31 states still allowing execution.
The current record-holder for longest death row resident in Pennsylvania is Henry Fahy, 59, the Kensington junk man convicted in the 1981 rape and murder of his 12-year-old neighbor, Nicolette "Nicky" Caserta. The oldest condemned inmate Roland Steele, 70, the Washington County man sentenced to three death sentences in 1986 for the karate-punch slayings of three elderly widows.