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Man pleads no contest in death of woman, 81

For the last year - since the murder of his 81-year-old mother - Joe Elia says, he has stayed up at night and watched over his wife and daughter, who have been too afraid to sleep unless someone is awake to guard them.

For the last year - since the murder of his 81-year-old mother - Joe Elia says, he has stayed up at night and watched over his wife and daughter, who have been too afraid to sleep unless someone is awake to guard them.

Yesterday, Elia, his family, and the family of Hoa Pham - who also was murdered - were in a Delaware County court when the man charged in the two slayings pleaded no contest to the crimes.

Jermaine Burgess, 38, of Upper Darby, received a total sentence of life without parole plus a minimum of 25 years in the 2008 deaths and robberies of Hoa Pham in Upper Darby and Marie Ott in Ridley Township. Burgess, who was facing the death penalty, showed little emotion during the two-hour proceeding.

On Oct. 27, Ott, a handicapped widow, was tied up, stabbed, and suffocated with a plastic bag over her head, according to police.

On Nov. 10, Pham, a former lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army, and his wife were asleep when Burgess broke into their home, tied them up, beat the 60-year-old man on the head with a hammer and chisel, and then raped the wife before killing Pham.

Elia, 56, of Wallingford, said that every day, his thoughts return to "that awful day" when his brother discovered their mother's body.

"I want this court to know that I will never find full closure until this criminal draws the last breath of his useless life and I draw mine," he said.

Daniel J. McDevitt, deputy district attorney, read a victim impact statement from Pham's wife. The letter said that she "didn't have the courage" to see the defendant in court, and that she lives with nightmares and has considered suicide.

She said she also prays for the peace, courage, and strength to live for her six children. "I also pray [to] God for you," she wrote. "May God forgive you and bring you back to humanity."

The families also heard how the state's parole system had failed to properly supervise and support the defendant - a violent career criminal - upon his release five months before Ott's killing.

Burgess has spent most of the last 18 years in prison, and has a history of drug and alcohol abuse. His attorney, Francis L. Zarrilli, said that as part of his recent parole, Burgess was required to have a drug and alcohol evaluation. It did not take place. Burgess was denied Medicaid, which the agency to which he was referred required for the evaluations. No further assistance in obtaining the coverage was provided by the state parole system.

During his last parole, Burgess was seen four times before his arrest in December. He had begun using drugs and alcohol again.

"He didn't get the support from his parole agent," Zarrilli said. "He is a two-strike person. He needs that help."

A message left for Sherry Tate, spokeswoman for the Department of Probation and Parole, was not returned.

Zarrilli said he had to subpoena his client's most recent parole records from the state, and received "eight handwritten pages" of documentation.

"The question is, when were they made?" he said.

Zarrilli said he also subpoenaed both the parole officer and his supervisor to appear in court yesterday. They did not appear.

Phyllis Pautrat, a clinical social worker, testified about Burgess' early life. His mother was 13 and his father was 17 when he was born. They never married. He was kicked out of school in the sixth grade, had 157 unexcused absences in the 10th grade, and dropped out by the 11th grade.

There was never an indication that the Philadelphia school system or truant court attempted to intervene, Pautrat said. Burgess received a GED in prison.

He also had a number of juvenile arrests, beginning at age 10.

According to court records, he was convicted in 1991 of aggravated assault after stabbing a man in the eye. In 1993, he was convicted in an armed carjacking. He violated parole and returned to prison. He was released in June 2008.

Burgess was arrested in Philadelphia in December 2008, and charged with a violent carjacking. Police were then able to match his DNA and charge him in the two murders.