WILKES-BARRE, Pa. – A man convicted of strangling two people during a 2002 robbery should be sent to death row, a prosecutor told jurors Tuesday, four days after the governor declared a moratorium on the death penalty.
Hugo Selenski was convicted last week on two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of pharmacist Michael Kerkowski and his girlfriend, Tammy Fassett. Prosecutors said Selenski and another man killed the couple in a plot to rob the pharmacist of tens of thousands of dollars from an illegal prescription drug ring.
As the penalty phase of his trial got underway Tuesday, Selenski's attorneys asked a judge to bar jurors from considering the death penalty, citing the moratorium declared by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.
Wolf, who took office last month, called the current system of capital punishment "error prone, expensive and anything but infallible" and said the moratorium will remain in effect at least until he receives a report from a legislative commission that has been studying the topic for several years.
Selenski's motion asked Luzerne County Common Pleas Judge Fred Pierantoni III to remove the death penalty as a sentencing option or to delay the penalty phase indefinitely.
Pierantoni did not rule immediately but told jurors: "You will decide whether to sentence the defendant to death or life in prison."
Selenski and another man, Paul Weakley, bound Kerkowski's hands and feet, put duct tape around his head to blind him, and beat him savagely with a rolling pin to get him to reveal the location of bags of money hidden in his house, prosecutors said.
Selenski's goal was "to cause him pain, to disorient him, to interrogate him, to torture him," Luzerne County Assistant District Attorney Jarrett Ferentino said Tuesday in his opening statement. "We are not talking about fear. We are not talking about fright. We are talking about terror and torture with a capital T."
In asking for a death sentence, the prosecutor also cited Selenski's history of violence and the fact there were multiple victims.
Selenski's attorney, Edward "E.J." Rymsza, appealed to jurors to spare his client's life.
"There are real and tangible and compelling reasons that Mr. Selenski does not need to be removed from the human community," he said.
Police found the victims' bodies, along with three other sets of human remains, on Selenski's property north of Wilkes-Barre in 2003.