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Philly judge: OK to seek death penalty in trial of cop's accused killers

Judge Kathryn Streeter Lewis set April 23, 2018 for the start of the trial of brothers Carlton Hipps and Ramone Williams.

Carlton Hipps, 31, (left) and his brother Ramone Williams, 27, (right) are charged with the fatal shooting of Philadelphia police officer Robert Wilson III.
Carlton Hipps, 31, (left) and his brother Ramone Williams, 27, (right) are charged with the fatal shooting of Philadelphia police officer Robert Wilson III.Read more

After denying a final defense motion to bar prosecutors from seeking the death penalty, a Philadelphia judge has set a trial date for next year for two brothers accused of the 2015 slaying of police Sgt. Robert Wilson III.

Common Pleas Court Judge Kathryn Streeter Lewis denied the defense motion as "without merit" following a hearing Thursday for brothers Carlton Hipps, 31, and Ramone Williams, 27.

Lewis, who handles pretrial issues on all city homicide cases, then assigned the case to homicide trial Judge J. Scott O'Keefe for a three-week trial beginning April 23, 2018.

O'Keefe set a "trial readiness conference" for Monday.

Defense attorney Daniel R. Stevenson, one of four public defenders working on Williams' case, filed a 45-page motion and legal memorandum arguing that Pennsylvania's death penalty violated both the U.S. Constitution and Pennsylvania's Constitution.

The defense motion called Pennsylvania's death penalty law overly broad, arbitrary, and racially discriminatory, adding that "as applied in Pennsylvania it is so arbitrary and capricious and therefore, cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual."

The defense motion also challenged prosecutors' decision to seek the death penalty against the brothers, citing last week's bribery guilty plea and resignation of Seth Williams, the district attorney first elected in 2009.

"How can any decision to seek the death penalty coming from this polluted, ethically challenged source contain the indicia of credibility and reliability required?" the defense motion read.

Michael Coard, the lawyer for Hipps, also asked Lewis to bar prosecutors from seeking the death penalty.

In the response by Assistant District Attorney Branden J. Albaugh and Brian Zarallo, chief of the homicide unit, the prosecutors maintained that the defense motion was filed too late under state court rules and their constitutional challenges to the death penalty were therefore waived. The prosecutors also called the defense challenge "patently meritless."

The prosecutors argued that the brothers met four aggravating factors that might persuade a jury to sentence them to death: killing a police officer on duty, killing during commission of another felony, creating a grave risk of death to someone other than the victims, and a significant history of convictions for violent felonies.

Only three people have been executed since Pennsylvania reenacted capital punishment in 1978 — two in 1995 and one in 1999.

In February 2015, Gov. Wolf issued a moratorium on executions pending the report and recommendations of a six-year-old legislative task force studying if the death penalty can be fairly and efficiently used in Pennsylvania.

It was about 5 p.m. on a snowy March 5, 2015, when Wilson, 30, an officer for eight years and the father of two young sons, asked his partner, Officer Damien Stevenson, to stop at the GameStop store at 2101 W. Lehigh Ave. in the Swampoodle section of North Philadelphia. Wilson wanted to buy a new PlayStation 4 and game for his 9-year-old son as a birthday gift and reward for doing well in school.

While Stevenson stayed in their cruiser, Wilson went into the store and was being waited on when two gunmen entered and started shooting. Wilson returned fire but, with nowhere to duck or cover, was hit by six shots and collapsed.

After the 30-second gunbattle, prosecutors said, Hipps tried to run, exchanged shots with Stevenson and was wounded in the leg. Williams was arrested hiding behind the store counter with employees he tried to convince them to tell police he was one of them.