It passed unnoticed on April 24, but Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has affirmed the first-degree murder conviction and death sentence of John “Jordan” Lewis in the Halloween 2007 killing of Philadelphia Police Officer Chuck Cassidy.
The majority opinion written by Justice Seamus P. McCaffery was filed almost four years after Lewis, now 26, was found guilty and sentenced to death by a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court jury and almost two years after the justices of the state’s high court heard oral argument in Lewis’ appeal.
On Nov. 12, 2009, the first day of his trial, Lewis pleaded guilty to a general charge of murder and six armed robberies, leaving to the jury the tasks of deciding the degree of murder and whether he should live or die for killing Cassidy, 54, during the holdup of a Dunkin' Donuts store at 6620 N. Broad St. in West Oak Lane.
Lewis’s appellate lawyer, Michael Coard, had argued that prosecutors had resorted to inflammatory tactics to sway the jury into finding Lewis guilty of first-degree murder and sentencing him to death by lethal injection.
One of Coard’s issues was brutally graphic security video from the Dunkin’ Donuts store showing Lewis entering, announcing the robbery and then confronting and shooting Cassidy as the officer opened the door of the shop. Coard argued that the repeated slow-motion replaying of the video for the jury made it seem as if Lewis took more time targeting and shooting Cassidy.
In the majority opinion, McCaffery wrote that the video clearly showed Lewis spot and take two steps toward Cassidy, gun drawn, before shooting and killing the officer. Lewis then runs out of the store but stops and takes Cassidy’s gun before leaving the scene.
McCaffery added that Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart did not err by allowing the slow-motion playing of the video: “The time, down to the second, at which the camera took the images, appeared as a digital display on the videotape, a fact that the [prosecutor] pointed out several times to the jury. Thus, the jury was well aware that [Lewis] shot Officer Cassidy within two seconds of the time that [he] noticed the officer at the door.”
The Supreme Court also rejected the appeals argument that prosecutors allowed Cassidy’s widow, Judy, go too far during her testimony in the trial phase of the case. Judy Cassidy was called during the trial phase to give what is known as “life in being” testimony, basically affirming for the jury that her husband was alive before the fatal confrontation with Lewis.
Coard argued that Judy Cassidy’s emotional, angry statement to the jury was more akin to “victim-impact” testimony given at sentencing and pushed the jury to a first-degree murder verdict.
In the majority opinion, McCaffery wrote that Minehart did err in allowing Judy Cassidy’s testimony go beyond “life in being” during the trial phase but concluded it was “harmless error.”
Quoting a 2001 state Supreme Court opinion, McCaffery wrote that “the properly admitted and uncontradicted evidence of guilt was so overwhelming and the prejudicial effect of the error so insignificant by comparison that the error could not have contributed to the verdict.”
“The evidence was graphic and powerful that [Lewis] acted with malice as well as with willful, deliberate, and premeditated intent to kill, and it strongly refuted [his] defense that he shot the officer in a surprised, reflexive panic,” McCaffery added.
The majority opinion was joined in by Justices Thomas G. Saylor, Max Baer and Debra McCloskey Todd. Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and Justice J. Michael Eakin filed concurring opinions. Former Justice Jane Orie Melvin did not participate in the decision.
In affirming Lewis conviction and death penalty, the Supreme Court enables Gov. Corbett to sign a death warrant and set an execution date. It will be years, however, before Lewis gets close to execution: a death warrant will open the door to appeals under Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act and then the federal courts.
Lewis, meanwhile, remains in a cell 23 hours a day in the Greene state prison in western Pennsylvania, one of six “death rows” where the state’s 194 condemned inmates – 191 men and three women – are held.