3 black teens sentenced to death in Harrisburg PA

In 1968 two teenagers from Pittsburgh, PA traveled into Harrisburg, PA on the run for robbery.  Samuel Barlow was 18 and Foster Tarver was 17.  They were at the house of Sharon Wiggins, also 17, who wanted to join them on the run.  The three teenagers robbed a bank in Harrisburg and a customer, George S. Morelock, age 64 was shot by Wiggins and Tarver and died.

A.W. Castle, an off-duty officer helped capture the teens.  All three pleaded guilty to murder and were to be sentenced by a panel of three Dauphin County judges.  Carl B. Shelley, R. Dixon Herman, and William W. Lipsitt were the judges that sentenced the teens to the death penalty.

LeRoy S. Zimmerman was the Dauphin County District Attorney in 1968 and did not seek the death penalty due to the teen’s circumstances.  The NAACP protested the imposed sentence and it was later reduced to life in prison.  All three prisoners are alive and remain behind bars.

FULL STORY BELOW from Harrisburg Patriot News

One deadly moment

by Nancy Eshelman
Harrisburg wasn’t so much a destination as an escape for three teens who drove east from Pittsburgh in November 1968.    Things were heating up in Pittsburgh for Samuel Barlow, 18, and Foster Tarver, 17. The pair had robbed two savings and loans before a close call in a pawn shop sent them scurrying to a nearby house to hide.    Sharon Wiggins, 17, who lived in the house, begged to join Barlow and Tarver as they put 200 miles between themselves and the slums, the poverty, the absent fathers and the spotty schooling.    Their robberies had netted them money for drugs, clothes and music. They intended to hang out with people Tarver knew.    Looking back, Wiggins said, the days she spent in Harrisburg remain a blur.    “When I look back at it now, I’m not sure what’s real and what’s part of my imagination,” she said. “It’s almost like seeing something in a dream.”    Wiggins recalls alcohol and drugs, plenty of them — marijuana, cocaine, heroin, narcotic cough syrup, glue and sloe gin. She remembers the Thanksgiving Day high school football game between John Harris and William Penn.

On the morning of Dec. 2, 1968, she sat in a restaurant. She recalls crossing a street and walking into the Dauphin Deposit Trust Co. at 1006 Market St. about 9:35 a.m.    As she, Barlow and Tarver were robbing the bank, a customer grabbed her arm. She remembers struggling for her gun.    “I know that I shot him, but I don’t remember hearing the shot,” she said.    None of them realized the shots fired that day would have echoes that continue through today.    Occurring in the midst of the civil rights movement, the three’s initial death sentence sparked outrage.    But even after those embers cooled, the echoes of the actions that winter day continue as the three age behind bars, and those touched by the crime continue to be troubled by it.    For Wiggins, who has worked to make herself a far different person than the girl who entered the bank, details about the day that forever changed her life are few.    She remembers falling and getting up, getting into a car, getting out, getting into another car.    She has no recollection of bullets being fired at the car.    “I don’t remember hearing them. One thing I remember — them pulling me out of the car. I remember that.”    Later, she remembers lying in a cell. She couldn’t see Tarver, but she heard him ask — using her nickname — “Peachie, are you all right?”

‘This is a holdup’

The three dressed in gray pants and Wiggins wore a hat; the idea was to make the cops think the bank was held up by three young black men.    Harrisburg Police Cpl. Connie Briggs didn’t realize Wiggins was a woman until she was in custody, but bank employee Barbara J. Branyan said she knew right off.    “They all were in gray shirts, long sleeved shirts, and gray trousers, and the girl had a brown hat, a dark brown hat,” she testified.    Tarver jumped on the bank’s counter and put one foot on top of a glass partition. He said, “Stand back, this is a holdup,” said Charles Hilmer Jr., a bank employee who testified.    As Tarver stuffed cash into blue gym bags, Wiggins kept her gun on employees and customers. Barlow watched the door.    When George S. “Bill” Morelock, 64, retired operator of a city trucking firm, entered the bank, Wiggins told him to line up.    Instead, Morelock asked, “Do you know what you’re doing?” and moved toward Wiggins. She shot Morelock twice.    As Morelock fell into one of the bank offices, Tarver ran from a teller’s cage, reached over a partition and shot Morelock two more times, witnesses said.    Morelock was dead on arrival at Harrisburg Hospital.    The three then ran from the bank and witnesses saw them climb into a blue-and-white 1960 sedan.

Briggs and A.W. Castle III, a newlywed Lower Allen Twp. cop who had struggled with Barlow in front of the bank, gave chase.    Briggs gave Castle his service revolver and Castle fired two shots at the car, one shattering the rear window. When the three robbers ducked, the driver lost control.    The robbers’ car hit a stopped car at Cameron and Paxton. In their car, police found a .38 Smith and Wesson and a .38 National Arms Co. revolver — with four shells expended. They also found two blue gym bags stuffed with $70,157 stolen from the bank.    Looking back, Barlow said: “Sharon and I were basically innocents walking into a trap. She should have never been there. Well, none of us should have been there.”    A shocking sentence    Wiggins and Tarver were just 17 — juveniles under the law — and Barlow never fired his gun.    They decided to plead guilty to a charge of general murder and let a panel of three Dauphin County judges — Carl B. Shelley, R. Dixon Herman and William W. Lipsitt — decide their fate.    District Attorney LeRoy S. Zimmerman didn’t ask for the death penalty. He noted the Pittsburgh trio’s backgrounds: They grew up in the ghetto, mainly on public assistance, without jobs or high school educations.    Their lives were “a sad thing in our society, but this society must have order with law,” Zimmerman said.

After deliberating 40 minutes in June 1969, the judges shocked the courtroom by sentencing Wiggins, Tarver and Barlow to die.    The U.S. Supreme Court has since ruled that a jury must determine whether the facts in a death penalty case warrant imposition of the death penalty. But at the time, the judges’ quick decision prompted the NAACP to appeal to Gov. Raymond Shafer.    “This action by a Pennsylvania court stands as a bitter symbol to thousands of black citizens across the state who know the swiftness with which the death penalty is meted out to black offenders and the notorious and systematic reluctance of judges to attach a sentence of death to white offenders,” Byrd R. Brown, president of the Pittsburgh Chapter of the NAACP, wrote to the governor.    Within days, 35 members of the midstate clergy had signed a statement protesting the punishment.

In February 1971, Lipsitt, Shelley and Judge William Caldwell, who had replaced Herman, reduced the sentence to life after hearing about their background.    They might have been moved by what they heard, but they also noted that times had changed. Gov. Milton J. Shapp had taken office, bringing strong opposition to the death penalty with him.    Thirty-nine years later, the three remain in state prison.    Wiggins, believed to be the first woman sentenced to death in Dauphin County, has served more time than any other woman in the state prisons, the Department of Corrections said.    Turning her life around    The teenager who was Peachie is gone now. The high school dropout with the Afro is a Penn State University graduate with graying cornrows. She has earned a peer teaching certificate, learned cosmetology and worked as a prison mechanic for 20 years.    Although she had a heart attack at 44, she keeps busy running groups on anger management, criminology, parenting, self-esteem. She lives in a therapeutic community with 80 women, trying to help them prepare for life outside.    She’s sought nine times without success to have her sentence commuted to parole for life.

But Wiggins is trying again. Her packet includes a recommendation from Jerry Cleveland, a retired auto trades instructor who worked with Wiggins in the prison for 15 years.    “I have served over 27 years in corrections with both male and female offenders. … Ms. Wiggins is one of only two incarcerated individuals that I would step forward on behalf of and say that she does deserve this chance at freedom,” he wrote.    Nancy Sponeybarger, her former prison counselor, also praised Wiggins’ attempts to improve herself: “… I believe that she is absolutely no risk of ever again committing any type of crime.”    Wiggins wasn’t always a model prisoner. She escaped twice — in 1973 and 1975.    When she looks back at the girl she was at 17, Wiggins is shocked by what she didn’t know or understand.    “I think about it all the time. I think about that one moment,” Wiggins said.    “I try to get across to my group [of younger inmates] how important it is to think about the decisions you make. … It’s like dropping a pebble into a lake and all the people who are affected by it.”

An awakening

If Wiggins is the gregarious person who signs up for every program, masters it and then uses it to help others, Barlow is the self-taught, intelligent loner.    He avoids younger prisoners. Yet if Barlow ever leaves prison, he wants to work with young people, particularly young black men, to try to keep them from making similar mistakes.    In prison, they call veterans like him old heads. Laughing, he says he’s more of a dinosaur.    He wears bifocals, his beard is gray and several of his front teeth are missing, a reminder, he said, of months spent “in the hole” without a toothbrush.    Like Wiggins, Barlow is seeking a commutation, but admits his record inside is shaky. He’s not one to join programs. He claims he spent more than three years “in the hole” for refusing to comply with drug-testing requirements.    “The nature of jail is not to make anything of you. It’s just to warehouse you,” he said.    While Wiggins and Tarver said they used drugs before the robbery, Barlow claims he stayed away from drugs because he saw too much of that growing up.    Barlow didn’t testify in court, but he lashed out when he and the others were sentenced to additional time for robbery, conspiracy and illegally carrying a firearm, telling the judge the additional years were senseless.    Then he said: “I haven’t shot anyone. I want to tell you that I haven’t shot anyone.”

Initially, Barlow said he wasted his time in prison, but said he had an awakening in 1975.    Most of the prison population was attending a Sister Sledge concert. Barlow went to take a shower and came to the sudden realization that he alone could determine his future. If he was to survive, he would have to “elevate my mind beyond the penitentiary.”    The following year he became a Muslim.    “Religion,” he said, “is how you treat others,” not rituals and how you dress. “It’s not about going in the corner and pretending you’re better than somebody.”    He leads a simple life, often skipping meals.    He awakens at 4:30 a.m. and enjoys watching the sun rise, grateful for another day of life. He has no television or radio, calling them distractions.    What he treasures are books and his typewriter.    He spends his time working on the block for 42 cents an hour and creating history collages from photographs he copies from his books.    He believes a day will come when he will walk out of prison and follow his dream of preventing other young men from wasting their lives behind bars.    “I want out because I have a lot to do,” he said.

Preparing a challenge

Tarver chose not to be interviewed “because I’m seeking assistance to prepare and argue questions supported by the record of being illicitly sentenced to life imprisonment,” he wrote.    He said he plans to challenge the constitutionality of juveniles being sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.    Court records show that when he was arrested, Tarver had an eighth-grade education, five brothers and a sister and hadn’t seen his father in five years.    He also has argued in the courts over the years that he was high during the bank robbery. In court papers, he said his head was spinning and he couldn’t remember committing the robbery or shooting anyone.    A physician-psychiatrist testified that he believed Tarver had been under the influence of drugs, leaving his consciousness disturbed and his judgment impaired.    Higher courts didn’t buy that excuse.

Tarver wrote that he is not trying to shirk responsibility for what happened.    He said the “attempt to obtain relief from my life sentence by having the courts address legal errors isn’t denial, does not seek to excuse effect of taking Mr. Morelock’s life.”    Unexpected compassion    Cpl. Connie Briggs is dead. So are Shelley and Herman, two of the three judges who sentenced the trio to death.    Castle, the off-duty cop, is a retired police chief and Monroe Twp. supervisor. He is known worldwide for training K-9 dogs.    But the bank robbery has stuck with him.    “Anytime I walk in the bank, I always walk around to look in the windows [first],” he said.    And, he said, it’s important not to forget the man who was killed.    “Yes, they killed a guy, ruined a whole family’s life, and the guy was older,” Castle said. “He was harmless.”    Morelock left no family to speak on his behalf. He was divorced when he died and his former wife, now deceased, identified his body, her son said recently.    His obituary didn’t mention her or her children, only a father and sister in Maryland.    But questions and compassion for his killers come from an unexpected place.

Zimmerman, who was Dauphin County district attorney during their trial and eventually became state attorney general, wouldn’t run out and throw open the prison doors. But he said he would be willing to examine the system, to consider whether every person who kills at a tender age should be locked behind walls forever.    Zimmerman was a defense lawyer before he was a district attorney. He saw the other side — the children without childhoods, poverty, neglect — up close.    “I always believed in my heart I was a better prosecutor for having been a criminal defense lawyer,” he said.    Zimmerman was attorney general during five of Wiggins’ commutation attempts; he recused himself each time.    Wiggins said he showed compassion.    “He understood that at that point in my life things had started to change for me,” Wiggins said.    “You can’t go 40 years and be the same person. You either get better or you get worse. I know I’m not a threat to society.”

 

Comments

  1. ellen melchiondo says:

    Hi Patti, Happy to see you have “discovered” the wonderful, extraordinary and lovely Sharon “Peachie” Wiggins! How did you learn about her? Are you interested in doing more work to make the world know that she has the title of the longest serving female juvenile lifer in the world and has been imprisoned at SCI Muncy in Pennsylvania? Please let me know if you are.

    • I’ve been studing the PA life sentence without parole in college. I feel compassion for the children who seriously screw up and then spend the rest of their lives behind bars. Peachie’s story, along with Corey Hollinger’s story really opened my eyes. Do you have an email or address I could write to Sharon at?

      • Hi Pattie,
        I hope you were able to get an address for “Peachie”! What a wonderful lady!! I know her and spent time with her doing groups!! I love when I find things like this on the internet. I feel like men in PA are given a chance for computation but women are not given the chance…ever.

      • Thank you for your comment Kelley! I never met Peachie, my college professor did and that is how I learned of her. She is free from prison and the earth now. Rest in Peace Peachie.

    • Elizabeth Kerrigan says:

      I would like to contact this Ellen Melchiondo how can I get her email?

  2. Thank you for visit our website.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Here is Sharon’s address: Sharon Wiggins, #004371 po box 180 Muncy Pa 17756. I’m sure she would love a letter!

  4. free sharon 44 years wow

  5. Sharon died. In muncy Sunday March 24, 2013. She was my friend

  6. Nancy Eshelman says:

    I’m curious to know if Juanita is who I think she might be. Do you live in Harrisburg? As for Peachy…she could have done great things on the outside, but she made the best of where she was and helped a lot of women.

  7. Anonymous says:

    My name is Ellen Melchiondo and I loved Sharon Wiggis. Please email me for up to date funeral arrangements. I would like to plan a memorial for her in Philadelphia but I am not sure how to spread the word. Please advice if you have any ideas. Ellenmelch@gmail.com. I miss her so much already.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Hi, friends of Peachie. I set up a Facebook page for her and a fund to help her family pay for her funeral, on Gofundme. Please tell the world about how unique and special she was. She was unjustly incarcerated and was so close to being free. Please express this tragedy on your own terms. Because the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania sucks on so many levels.

  9. ellen melchiondo says:

    Dear Pattie: We are just $600 short of the goal to fund Sharon’s funeral. Please spread the word. Because of Sharon Wiggins, I am a better and smarter person!

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