Pa. court reverses death sentence in gruesome murder

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LaQuanta Chapman

The state Supreme Court reversed a death sentence of a Coatesville man convicted of fatally shooting his teenage neighbor in 2008 and dismembering the body with a chainsaw.

The Supreme Court justices did not question the conviction of LaQuanta Chapman, 36, but they said prosecutors misidentified previous New Jersey convictions as felonies, which led to the death sentence, according to an opinion issued Tuesday.

The high court, which in December upheld a death-penalty moratorium imposed by Gov. Wolf, returned the case to Chester County Court, ordering it to give Chapman a life sentence.

New Jersey does not use the term "felony." Instead, it uses a grading system ranging from "crime of the first degree" to "crime of the fourth degree." Chapman's prior convictions in the state were fourth-degree crimes, the least serious of these, according to Tuesday's opinion.

Marc Bookman, director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, in Center City, said the judicial system had wasted resources on "an improper death penalty trial."

"The Chapman case is a perfect example of prosecutorial overreaching," he said. "As our Supreme Court noted, the New Jersey cases the Commonwealth was relying on plainly did not qualify to make the case capital."

About two-thirds of the country's death sentences have been overturned at some point during appeals, according to a 2000 Columbia University study cited by defense attorneys.

In Chester County, Chapman was convicted of first-degree murder and related charges and sentenced to death in 2012 for the murder of Aaron Turner, 16.

Turner was shot to death, and Chapman disposed of the dismembered remnants of the body in the trash with the help of a cousin.

Weeks after the killing, police got a search warrant to investigate drug sales from Chapman's home. They found Chapman's blood-stained clothing in a garbage bag, a .25-caliber shell casing and human tissue.

Police said that while Chapman was in jail awaiting trial, he confessed to killing Turner. Chapman has continued to maintain his innocence.

On Dec. 21 the state Supreme Court upheld Wolf's death-penalty moratorium. He imposed it in February 2015, saying the state's "capital punishment system has significant and widely recognized defects" and was "ineffective, unjust, and expensive."

He said he would await the results of a legislative commission's report on the death penalty.

Since Pennsylvania reinstated capital punishment in 1978, only three people have been executed. About 180 people are currently on Pennsylvania's death row, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

mbond@philly.com

610-313-8207 @MichaelleBond