2013-01-16 06:55:20 UTC
FROM: The Erie Times-News ~
By Lisa Thompson
David Copenhefer spent decades fighting the government's effort to
execute him for the kidnapping and murder of a Corry woman in 1988.
In the end, nature, rather than the state, ended Copenhefer's life in
prison for the murder of 37-year-old Sally Weiner.
Copenhefer, 65, died of natural causes Sunday while on death row at
the State Correctional Institution at Greene, which is near Waynesburg
in Greene County, state Corrections Department spokeswoman Susan
McNaughton said the prison system would release Copenhefer's body to
his next of kin or another person whom he had designated for that
Erie County District Attorney Jack Daneri said Weiner's husband, Harry
Weiner, notified him of Copenhefer's demise. The death ended decades
of legal work Erie County prosecutors have done to defend Copenhefer's
1989 death sentence on appeal, Daneri said.
"For the Weiner family it never ends," he said.
Harry Weiner could not be reached for comment.
Copenhefer was one of two Erie County inmates on death row. Stephen
Treiber, 43, convicted in 2002 of deliberately setting a house fire in
Millcreek Township to kill his 2-year-old daughter, Jessica Treiber,
continues to appeal his death sentence while at the maximum-security
Copenhefer's murder of Sally Weiner was one of the most infamous
crimes in recent Erie County history. Her body was found near a gas
well in Wayne Township, outside Corry, two days after she was
kidnapped in June 1988. She had been shot in the head.
Pretrial publicity prompted Erie County Judge Roger M. Fischer, now
deceased, to pick a jury from Allegheny County to hear the case at the
Erie County Courthouse. The jury in March 1989 convicted Copenhefer of
first-degree murder and sentenced him to die for holding Sally Weiner
ransom and demanding money from her husband.
Police identified Copenhefer as a suspect from a list of people who
had been turned down for a loan at the bank where Harry Weiner worked.
A variety of forensic evidence -- insects found on Sally Weiner's
body, ammunition and tire tracks and a metal rod to which the
kidnapper attached a note -- helped solve the crime. Police also found
drafts of ransom notes in Copenhefer's trash and a 22-point plan for
the kidnapping scheme on his computer.
The prosecutor was then-Erie County District Attorney William R.
Cunningham, who went on to be elected an Erie County judge in 1995.
Reflecting on Copenhefer's case on Tuesday from his judicial chambers,
Cunningham recalled his closing argument to the jury: that Copenhefer
not only murdered Sally Weiner, but planned to kill her. The jury
sentenced Copenhefer to die after accepting one aggravated
circumstance -- that he killed Weiner while holding her for ransom.
"The sheer coldblooded callous nature of it," Cunningham said of what
he remembered about Copenhefer's slaying of Sally Weiner. "He had
planned it for weeks."
He said Copenhefer and the Weiners attended the same church, and that
Copenhefer carried out the kidnapping and murder "all for money."
"Until the day he died, I don't think he demonstrated any remorse
whatsoever," Cunningham said.
"I certainly hope it brings closure to the Weiner family," he said of
Copenhefer's death. "They are the ones who had to live through it,
through an endless round of frivolous appeals."
After several failed state court appeals, Copenhefer for a time won a
reprieve. In 2002, Senior U.S. District Judge Maurice B. Cohill Jr.
threw out Copenhefer's death sentence and ordered a new sentencing
Cohill ruled the jurors did not properly weigh Copenhefer's prior
clean record and arbitrarily sentenced him to die. Cohill said the
mistake violated Copenhefer's Eighth Amendment protection against
cruel and unusual punishment.
In September, however, a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals, based in Philadelphia, reversed Cohill and upheld
Copenhefer's death sentence.
The ruling came after Daneri argued at a May hearing that the jury
properly considered all the mitigating and aggravating circumstances
in convicting Copenhefer and sentencing him to die.
Most recently, Copenhefer's legal team from the Defender Association
of Philadelphia had asked the 3rd Circuit Court to allow them to
reargue the case. The last ruling in the case came Jan. 3, when a
Circuit Court judge gave Copenhefer's lawyers until Feb. 8 to file a
petition for a rehearing.