Death Sentence For Pennsylvania Boy Reflects Country’s Mood, Judge Says

OLD FORGE, Pa., June 9— Joseph Aulisio could have expected to grow up to be an automobile mechanic. He loved to tinker with cars and, despite mental and emotional problems, he seemed to have a quick grasp of how motors worked and how to fix them. But a jury, at the climax of an extraordinary series of circumstances surrounding Joseph and a trial for a double murder, has decided that the 16-year-old boy should die in an electric chair. The verdict, rendered in Scranton last month for crimes committed last year, when Joseph was 15, made him the youngest of more than 1,000 people under death sentences in prison cells across the country. His attorney has appealed the case to the State Supreme Court. Joseph, a boy with a round, chubby face and eyes magnified behind thick-lensed glasses, continues to deny committing the murders as he sits in isolation in Lackawanna County prison. He disputes a chain of circumstantial evidence linking him to an 8-year-old girl, her 4-year-old brother and an unfinished house where they were slain while apparently seeking shelter from darkening clouds on a hot Sunday afternoon last summer. Family Protests, Town Debates They are murders that had spread fear and horror in this quiet, blue-collar community on the outskirts of Scranton. And they are murders that his father, Robert Aulisio Sr., staring past fruit trees across a green lawn at the house he had been building, insists Joseph could not have committed; that his former wife, Joseph’s troubled mother, insists her son was too gentle to commit and that an anguished grandmother insists that any of several other people could have committed, leaving behind the same evidence that convicted Joseph. But, while the family protests and the community now debates Joseph’s sentence, neither the presiding judge in the case, the prosecutors who sought the death sentence nor the jurors who rendered the decision profess either doubts or qualms. ”Fortunately, the death sentence was something I didn’t have to decide,” said Judge James J. Walsh of Lackawanna County’s Common Pleas Court, noting that under state law only a jury can impose a death sentence. ”I think it’s a reflection of the mood of the country,” said the judge, who had set part of the chain in motion by deciding that Joseph should be tried in an adult court rather than in juvenile proceedings. ”We’re reading more and more about vicious crimes by younger and younger people. Incidents like that are causing a lot of people to say that if they are guilty of adult criminal activity they should be subject to adult punishment.” ‘Forfeited His Right to Live’ The assistant district attorney, Lawrence Moran, said: ”I think he was the kind of person the statute contemplates the death penalty for.” The jury, drawn from Bucks County nearly 100 miles to the southeast because of fears of inflamed passions in this area, made a compact to remain silent after the trial, but one juror agreed to discuss the verdict and the sentence upon a promise of anonymity. ”It may sound kind of harsh and unfeeling,” the juror said, ”but when he took the lives of those two kids he forfeited his right to live.” Under state law, however, more than a verdict of first-degree murder is required before a death penalty can be imposed. In Joseph’s case, as in those of other juveniles above the age of 14 who are accused of murder, under state law, a judge must find that the suspect is not amenable to rehabilitation by the juvenile correctional system and hold him for trial in an adult court. For a youth under 14 a juvenile court is required. Commission of a first-degree murder with specified aggravating circumstances is also required. Among those are murder during a felony such as kidnapping and conviction of a previous crime that is punishable by death. Convicted on Kidnapping Charge Joseph was charged with kidnapping the two children by ushering them into the house to commit the crime and was convicted on the charge. A second aggravating circumstance put forward by the prosecutors, approved by the judge and accepted by the jury involved the double murder. The jurors found that conviction on the slaying after kidnapping of one of the children constituted one crime punishable by death and therefore, for the second murder, satisfied the qualification of a prior conviction. The circumstances surrounding Joseph’s case, according to testimony and interviews with witnesses at the trial, lawyers, family and neighbors, began long before Old Forge’s tragic summer Sunday of 1981. Joseph was the second of six children born to Robert Aulisio, a biology teacher in a nearby school district, and his former wife, who is now Claire Bohenek. He was a quiet child, ”loyal, obedient and helpful,” who ”like a shadow” was constantly with his father, according to testimony of Walter Ermolovich, vice principal at Old Forge High School where Joseph was a ninth-grader. The family’s first five children were boys. The sixth, a girl, was born with a life-threatening deformity, and while she lived Joseph steadily helped his mother care for her, according to friends and family. When the baby died after two and a half months, Mrs. Bohenek said, ”Joseph became very withdrawn.” ‘Family That Deteriorated’ ”He was a very deep boy, a loving and caring child,” she said. The Aulisios were ”a million-dollar family that deteriorated” after the baby’s death, in 1975, Mr. Ermolovich, a close friend of the father, testified. Then, he said, the home became a scene of ”constant bickering and arguing.” Mrs. Bohenek still dwells on the time that followed, when she suffered what Aulisio family members describe as a ”nervous breakdown,” and Mr. Aulisio worked at extra jobs while trying to build a house, alone and without a mortgage, next door to a mobile home in a trailer park where the family lived. Before the couple were divorced in 1978, Mrs. Bohenek left. She charged her husband with infidelity and took her three youngest children, leaving Joseph and his older brother with Mr. Aulisio. Afterward, Mr. Ermolovich testified, Joseph began skipping school and his marks began to slip. ”But the problem was really an absenteeism of parents,” Mr. Ermolovich said in an interview. ”I did everything I could to try to keep him in school,” said Mr. Aulisio. ‘Anxious and Insecure’ Boy Aside from his truancy, a school psychologist found when he tested the then 13-year-old that Joseph suffered from a learning disability and that his mental age lagged behind his chronological age by about two years. Another psychologist, Gerald Cooke, testifying at a hearing on possible transfer of the case to a juvenile court, told of more serious problems. He found that Joseph had an I.Q. of 81. ”If he were two points lower,” Dr. Cooke said, ”he would go into what’s called a diagnosable range, borderline intellectual functioning.” Behind a facade of bravado, Dr. Cooke said, was a boy who was ”anxious and insecure” with an ”underlying depression” and so much ”alienation” that ”he feels lonely even when he’s with other people.” Joseph, he said, felt rejected by his mother and angry and afraid in relations with his father. He said he found the father ”a rather angry man” and found in the mother ”a tendency to focus on her own concerns and needs that made her less responsive to his.” Mrs. Bohenek commented, ”It was the father, it was the mother, it was the father’s girlfriend that screwed Joey’s mind up.” ‘Tremendous Underlying Anger’ ”There is evidence of tremendous underlying anger,” said Dr. Cooke, ”which has built up with no way to direct it at the sources that caused it.” He said Joseph felt that he did ”bad things” but felt ”blamed and held responsible even when he does not do bad things.” ”Joey was just a quiet kid who’d take the blame for everything,” said Paul Kuzara, a neighbor, ”and that is what is happening now.” Commenting on Joseph’s family and emotional problems, Mr. Moran said: ”Unfortunately, there are hundreds of thousands of kids like that, but they are not all killers.” Mr. Moran, who participated at the trial, said he had also joined with Ernest Preate Jr., the district attorney, in a decision to seek the death penalty. When Mr. Moran was interviewed, Mr. Preate was in a hospital, suffering from a viral infection and unable to receive visitors or calls, his office said. ”As prosecutors it was our duty,” said Mr. Moran. ”The statute says that under these circumstances it is something that should be sought.” Bodies Found in Abandond Mine The tragedy, which so stirred fears in the community that some mothers were afraid to let children out of their sight, began last July 26. That afternoon 8-year-old Cheryl Ziemba and her brother, Christopher, disappeared, prompting an area-wide search. Their bodies were found two days later in an abandoned strip mine. They had been slain at close range with a shotgun. Their mother, Diane Ziemba, testified that she last saw them being ushered by Joseph into the unfinished house. Other witnesses testified they had seen him in the area with the children. Still other witnesses testified they had seen him driving the family car within 500 yards of the strip mine. Blood-stained rugs were identified as having come from the family’s car and home. Joseph was charged after he told state police, while being questioned in his mother’s presence, that he had found a bloody scene in the house and had cleaned it up, fearing he would be blamed. His story was interrupted by the arrival of a public defender who advised him to say no more. Police inspection identified an upper bedroom as the scene of the crime. Neither a motive nor a murder weapon has ever been found. In the juvenile-transfer hearing, the prosecution introduced a witness, a fellow teen-ager, who testified to seeing Joseph commit acts of sadism against animals. The boy testified to ”about 50” but could specify only four. ‘Always Good to Animals’ Rebuttal witnesses said Joseph, who was surrounded by pets, had always been gentle with animals. Neighbors could recall only that, as one girl said, ”Joey was always good to animals. The prosecution’s case was attacked by the defense counsel, John J. Brier, on several points, which he said in an interview he would also use on appeal. Pictures from the scene had shown, he said, that Mrs. Ziemba could not have seen Joseph ushering her children through the doorway she had identified from the window where she said she was standing. A screen of trees and a derelict truck do seem to obscure the door from the view from that window. She testified that she had not been alarmed when she saw her children being taken into the house. That, said Mr. Brier, should have eliminated a kidnapping charge since it indicated consent to what was happening. Without a kidnapping, he said, neither of the murders could be a crime punishable by death under Pennsylvania law. A kidnapping of a child, Mr. Moran acknowledged, requires removal without a parent’s consent. Mr. Brier’s appeal seeks a new trial, also charging that Judge Walsh erred in not granting a transfer to juvenile court and erred also in permitting use of Joseph’s statement. Since he was charged, Joseph has grown an inch and a half and his chest and arms have filled out. Mr. Brier said he fears that before appeals have run their course, the boy may reach at least the appearance of manhood. Illustrations: photo of Judge James Walsh photo of Joseph Aulisio Sr. with his mother View Original Article