GETTYSBURG, Pa. (AP) — Prosecutors said they will seek the death penalty against a man charged in the murders of a mother and her teenage daughter during a burglary in Pennsylvania more than 3 decades ago.
Abraham Cruz Jr., 55, was charged in August with criminal homicide, conspiracy, burglary and arson in the August 1980 slayings of 17-year-old Deborah Patterson and her 41-year-old mother, Nancy Patterson.
District Attorney Brian Sinnett said at Cruz's arraignment Monday that he plans to seek capital punishment if Cruz is convicted of first-degree murder. Sinnett said the death penalty would be justified because more than one person was killed, the slayings occurred during a felony, another person was endangered and a prosecution witness was killed to prevent them from testifying. He also cited the defendant's criminal history.
Authorities said a pair of masked men broke into the home outside Gettysburg and set fire to the kitchen, then shot the two victims as they tried to flee. Nancy Patterson's husband was also shot, but survived. Two other children escaped to a neighbor's house, according to police.
Erasmo Cruz, Abraham Cruz's uncle, pleaded guilty earlier to third-degree homicide in the case after he was extradited from Puerto Rico. Authorities have alleged that he told police in an interview last year that he saw his nephew shoot the victims.
Another man, Ruperto Garcia Jr., pleaded guilty to a burglary conspiracy charge in the case. Garcia told investigators that he neither witnessed the shootings nor planned the burglary, but afterward Erasmo and Abraham Cruz had warned him not to talk about the incident or they would kill his mother.
A son of Nancy Patterson was charged in the case and acquitted in 1981. The case then remained dormant until state police picked it up as a cold case in 2008, county prosecutors said.
Defense attorney Dawn Cutaia said the fact that the case is 35 years old is a huge problem for the defense.
"We do have statements, but people's memories fade, witnesses die," she said.