Prosecutors in Pennsylvania are seeking the death penalty against one of the suspects accused of fatally shooting two brothers, ages 8 and 9, as they played with kittens in their backyard earlier this week.
A teenager who also lived at the property was slain in the shooting and was the apparent primary target, police said.
Sebastian Perez-Salome, 9, Jesus Perez-Salome, 8, were outside their home in Lebanon, a city of about 144,000 residents 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia, on Tuesday night at about 10 p.m. with the kittens when the shooting erupted.
Officials said the third person killed, 19-year-old Joshua Lugo-Perez, was believed to be the target over what authorities called a “previous argument.” He was not related to the two children but lived in the same house.
A 33-year-old man who lives next door was also injured when he was hit by a stray bullet.
Alex Torres Santos, 22, and a 16-year-old male were arrested and charged with three counts of criminal homicide. Authorities said a third suspect is still being sought.
Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf said Friday she will seek the death penalty against Torres-Santos for the triple homicide due to “aggravating factors” she hasn’t seen in her 14 years as a prosecutor and four years as district attorney.
“No other murder committed during my time as the D.A. has risen to the specific legal standard necessary to seek death for the killer,” Graf said in a news release. “This case meets that standard.”
Boys killed were ‘innocent and polite,’ family says
The children’s mother was at her job at a convenience store near the house when she heard gunshots, according to their uncle, Felix Muniz Torres.
Muniz Torres told the Associated Press in a phone interview from his home in Puerto Rico that the mother raced home and found them shot. Her other child, 13, was fortunately away at a school event at the time of the shooting, he said.
“She’s in shock and is unable to speak coherently,” Muniz Torres said.
Jesus Perez-Salome was pronounced dead at the scene. Sebastian Perez-Salome and Lugo-Perez both died a short time later at hospitals.
The boys were “innocent and polite,” Muniz Torres said.
“They were very close,” he said, and always played together, usually with superhero figures.
Just a year ago, tragedy struck when the family lost everything they owned to an apartment fire at their former residence caused by an electrical problem, the uncle said.
The family plans to bring the boys’ bodies back to Puerto Rico to be buried, Muniz Torres said.
Officials: Suspect was on house arrest at time of shooting
Torres-Santos and the 16-year-old have been charged with three counts of criminal homicide, conspiracy to commit homicide and a slew of gun-related offenses. They were also were charged with one count of aggravated assault for the neighbor who was hit.
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Police found multiple .223 rifle rounds and 9mm shell casings that showed at least 27 gunshots fired at the home Tuesday. Officials said these shots came from two different caliber firearms. A search of the suspects’ residence Wednesday revealed multiple firearms, including an AR-15 and a secondary weapon, which officials said was consistent with the shell casings located at the scene.
Before his arrest on Wednesday, Torres-Santos was already on house arrest on bail for two separate incidents, including allegedly striking a resident multiple times and possessing crack cocaine with intent to deliver. In February, police responded for a report of a gunshot victim, and the same man told officers he was shot again in the leg by Torres-Santos, according to an affidavit.
Santos was ordered to wear a house-arrest bracelet. Officials said he wore the bracelet to the shooting Tuesday night, according to Lebanon County Probation Services.
Killing eligible for death penalty because victims were children, other factors
Only homicides in which prosecutors can prove “aggravating factors” as specified by the law are eligible for punishment by the death penalty, the district attorney’s office said in Friday’s press release.
A notice against Torres-Stamos alleges five of those statutorily defined aggravating factors, including the multiple nature of the homicides, two victims who were under the age of 12 at the time of their murder, and the grave risk to others posed by the defendant’s actions in a densely occupied city neighborhood.
A death penalty jury trial includes two trial phases: An original trial and sentencing. If the defendant is found guilty of first-degree murder, the case proceeds to a second phase for sentencing.
At that time, the district attorney presents evidence to prove the aggravating factors justifying the death penalty. The defendant has the opportunity to present evidence of why he should not be put to death. The jury then determines if the defendant’s ultimate punishment is life imprisonment or death.
Graf said the process to consider the death penalty in this case was “lengthy and costly.”
“To those who second guess today’s decision, we did not make it easily nor did we take the decision lightly,” she said. “There are some crimes – crimes like this one where young children were shot to death outside of their home as they innocently played with their kittens – that demand we charge accordingly.”
Contributing: The Associated Press