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Victim’s family, others resigned to Walter life sentence

By JIM RUNKLE

jrunkle@lockhaven.com

LOCK HAVEN – Life is life. There is no chance of parole or probation.

Knowing that, the family of slain James Sementelli have gone along with the agreement that moved Shonda Walter from death row into general prison population.

Sementelli’s daughter, Cindy Gray, spoke through her tears.

Cindy said a representative of the state Attorney General’s office came and talked to the family…and explained the situation. The office wanted to know how the family felt.

There was a seven-day hearing scheduled in December to go over a 700-plus page document of possible appeals… things that apparently were wrong with her trial… things her attorney did wrong … she explained.

“We didn’t want her to get a new trial out of that and have to listen to all of that over and over again. So when we were asked about our feelings… even though we didn’t really agree with it… we decided to go along with it. Just so she has to stay in prison and has no chance for parole or pardon. I don’t want her to have the right to do anything,” Cindy said.

Other family members also spoke about the recent turn of events.

THE BROTHER

James’s brother, Bill Sementelli Sr., 86, of Beech Creek, said he attended the trial and was satisfied – at that time – by the penalty rendered by the jury.

But as the years went by, he said, with no action from the state and with attorneys filing appeal after appeal on behalf of Walter, family members saw the writing on the wall.

“I wasn’t surprised,” he said. “We’d been talking about this for a long time since the last stay of execution. We saw state after state going away from executions, and we knew it wouldn’t be long before Pennsylvania followed.”

Bill said the sentiments of the family members were overwhelmingly in favor of execution, given the brutal nature of the crime, but the surviving family members appear resigned to seeing Shonda Walter behind bars for the rest of her natural born days.

“We talked it over, and we sort of figured (it would) get away from the death penalty, but she’s still in jail and has no chance of parole,” he said. “It seems like the majority of the public doesn’t want the death penalty anymore – maybe because they haven’t been placed in the position we suffered, but the momentum has taken us that way.”

Bill’s life in Lock Haven, but for that one violent episode, followed much the same path as his younger brother.

After service in the military, Bill went to work at Piper Inc., then at Kephart Plaza, while James also served in the military and after World War II found a post at the city’s other major employer, the local paper mill .

“There were 13 of us,” Bill said. “Eight boys and five girls … Now there’s just three boys and one girl left, and I’m the oldest … James was about fourth or fifth from the top.”

THE SISTER

James’s sister, Rhoda Powers of Jersey Shore, said she would have preferred a more severe outcome but recognized the governor’s opposition to the death penalty made that impossible, at least into the foreseeable future.

“It’s not going to happen as long as Gov. Wolf is there,” she said. “I would have preferred the original sentence, but life in prison is about the second worst penalty a person can get.”

Mrs. Powers said all the surviving family members were kept apprised of the situation throughout the appeal process, and she believes their feelings were given due consideration.

“We felt this should happen in our lifetime,” Mrs. Powers said, “but she’s off death row.” The length of time devoted to the appeal process played a role in the final determination, she said. “I’ll be 80 in a couple of weeks. I’ll never see the end of her, one way or another – but there are a couple hundred grandchildren and they might see the end of it all.

“My brother James was a lot of fun. He, myself and Tommie were the last ones at home and we were around each other all the time,” she said. “He was a good guy – There’s no other way to put it. To kill somebody for a stupid car or for money? To kill somebody for that? I think it’s pure stupid.”

“I’m disappointed with this, of course,” she said,” but at least she’s not going to hurt anybody else.”

FAMILY SPOKESMAN

The victim’s niece, Karen Young of the Lancaster area, serves as spokesman for the extended Sementelli family. She said the relatives talked about the option of life behind bars for months but eventually reached a consensus on the matter.

“Yes, some people believed she should have been put to death,” she said. “But with the options out there, collectively we decided we would favor ending any uncertainty down the pike. I respect the jury’s decision, but they have to understand what we were dealing with. This is a good resolution, one everybody could come to terms with. We wanted to insure she would spend her lifetime behind bars.”

The discussions went far and wide, she said, and included the victim’s four living siblings and “tons of cousins,” many still living in the Lock Haven area.

In the beginning of the discussions, Susan DiGiacomo from the Attorney General’s office reached out to Young, and Young reached out to others and “we all reached out … It snowballed from there,” Young said.

The discussions began in April and concluded at the end of July.

“It wasn’t the spur of the moment,” she said. “We respected them reaching out and involving us in the process … If there was one factor for us, it was ending the appeals process and the uncertainty.”

Young said the family is thankful for all the people who were involved in seeing to Walter’s conviction, including the “phenomenal” work done by the police department and special prosecutor Joe McGettigan.

“Jimmy will be missed every day,” Young said.

JURY MEMBER

Annette Walker Shoemaker who served on the jury that imposed the death penalty on Walter, felt strongly enough about the situation that she wrote a directly-worded letter to the editor objecting to the reversal.

“The state presented an overwhelming case, beyond a reasonable doubt,” Shoemaker said. “She (Walter) was guilty. Mr. Sementelli was an innocent man who was murdered.”

Shoemaker said the panel voted as a unit and made an informed decision made on the basis of overwhelming evidence. “Judge Williamson was not the trial judge and I don’t feel he had the right to take that decision away from us,” she said.

Shoemaker’s letter:

“I am writing in response to Clinton County Judge J. Michael Williamson vacating Shonda Walter’s death penalty!

“In what universe do you feel that you have the right to do that, Judge Williamson?

“As a member of the jury that not only convicted her of murder and sentenced her to death, I cannot for the life of me figure out why she would not meet her fate by death.

“I sat on that jury, along with the other members of this county that endured a trial of unimaginable photos of the crime which was committed, watched as she showed no remorse whatsoever and listened to testimony of her so-called ‘friends’ explain how she went to get them and brought them to Mr. Sementelli’s home to see his lifeless body, and lastly how about Mr. Sementelli, who cannot speak for himself as he is no longer with us, or his family who lost him to an untimely death. Please, your honor, explain to me how a jury of her peers decided her fate and you decided that she didn’t have proper representation.

“Well, you know what?

“Too damn bad!

“She took a life, now she deserves to pay with her own. “

OTHERS

Mr. and Mrs. Tom Sementelli of the Lancaster area expressed disappointment at the situation but would not otherwise comment, and the remaining sibling, Joe Sementelli, also offered no comment.

Former Clinton County District Attorney Ted McKnight offered strong support for the death penalty, describing the crime as an “act of pure evil” and saying all things considered, Walter deserved to receive the ultimate penalty for her crimes.

“I saw the photographs and I attended the autopsy,” he said, “but I’m a realist. At this time in Pennsylvania, unless you volunteer for the death penalty, you will probably die of old age on death row. The chances of Walter actually being put to death were probably nil.”

McGettigan, the special prosecutor in the case, was also called concerning the case, but did not return telephone calls by press time.