For over three decades, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has argued that a West Philadelphia man who killed two people and left their infant daughter to freeze to death should be executed, until current District Attorney Larry Krasner sought to end pursuit of the death penalty entirely.
However, in a 12-page opinion issued late Monday, a federal judge denied Krasner’s request to vacate defendant Robert Wharton’s death sentence. In January 1984, Wharton and an accomplice murdered Bradley and Ferne Hart in their West Philadelphia home and turned off the heat before leaving so that the couple’s 6-month-old daughter would freeze, though she was eventually rescued.
Wharton continuously fought his death sentence over the years through habeas corpus and was opposed at every turn by prosecutors until Krasner, a former defense attorney who campaigned on criminal justice reform, enacted the policy that his office would no longer seek the death penalty in capital cases.
U.S. District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, who called the murders “particularly horrific” in his ruling, said Krasner offered little reason for taking the death penalty off the table.
“After so many years of advocating for a death sentence, the District Attorney’s Office has now come to believe Wharton’s sentence violates the Constitution. And this concession is made without a single explanation,” Goldberg said. “To accept that view ‘blindly’ and summarily grant habeas relief without independently reviewing the merits of the remaining claim would be an abdication of my responsibility to perform the judicial function.”
District Attorney’s Office spokesman Ben Waxman said, “We respect the independence of the judiciary and are reviewing our options for the case moving forward.”
Shawn Nolan, a federal public defender representing Wharton, said, “We will be filing a brief in 30 days and do not feel it is appropriate to comment during the pendency of the proceedings.”
According to Goldberg’s opinion, Wharton was irate over what he thought was a debt owed to him by the Harts for construction work.
Before the murders, to which he confessed, Wharton embarked on a retaliation campaign consisting of breaking into and vandalizing the Hart’s home, mutilating family photos, and defecating on the floor, according to Goldberg’s opinion.
On the night of Jan. 30, 1984, Wharton and his accomplice again broke into the home and tied up the Harts, watching television for several hours while contemplating what to do with the couple, Goldberg said.
“The wife, Ferne Hart, was then bound in duct tape, taken to the second floor, stripped almost entirely naked and drowned in the bathtub,” Goldberg said. “The husband, Bradley Hart, was taken to the basement and strangled to death with an electrical cord while being forced to lay face down in a pan of water.”
The judge continued, “Not satisfied, and knowing that the couple’s six-month-old was also in the house, Wharton turned the heat off and left the child alone in the house in the dead of winter to freeze to death. Found two days later, the infant barely survived.”
Wharton, 56, currently sits on death row at State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County.