While serving a 30-to-60 year sentence at Western Penitentiary (SCI-Pittsburgh) for a Philadelphia robbery, Stanley J. Howard stabbed and killed Corrections Officer Clifford J. Grogan after Grogan came to the aid of fellow guard Lawrence Weyandt during an altercation. The incident occurred on November 12, 1965.
Howard pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was convicted on April 11, 1966. After a sentencing hearing that included testimony that would otherwise have been heard at trial, he was sentenced to death on November 2, 1966.
The motive for the attack is unclear, though Howard’s guilty plea, his refusal of the assistance of counsel, his history of suicide attempts, and his serious mental health problems suggest he may have sought the death penalty.
Once sentenced to death, however, Howard aggressively challenged his conviction. In his initial appeal, he argued that his actions lacked the premeditation necessary for first-degree murder, that he lacked the mental capacity to form intent, and that imposition of his death sentence was an abuse of the court’s discretion. Though the court expressed concern about the lack of mental health treatment available to Howard, his arguments were rejected (Commonwealth v. Howard, 426 Pa. 305, 1967).
Howard’s appeal to the United States Supreme Court was rejected without review.
However, with the use of the death penalty in Pennsylvania and the country as a whole grinding to a halt in the face of legal challenges, the execution of Howard’s death sentence and the death sentences of other inmates in the county, the state, and even the nation, awaited federal action to resolve the many questions surrounding the nation’s death penalty practices.
Pennsylvania’s response to this era of uncertainty was to dismantle its electric chair. In an extraordinary six-page letter that detailed the physical, legal, and moral horrors of executions, Attorney General Fred Speaker directed the superintendent of Rockview to eliminate the state’s capacity to execute prisoners.
This de facto moratorium came to an end with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Furman v. Georgia (408 US 238, 1972), which ruled the death penalty unconstitutional. When that decision was applied to Pennsylvania through the case of Commonwealth v. Ross (449 Pa. 103, 1972), Howard’s death sentence – and the death sentences of three other Allegheny County inmates and twenty-four Pennsylvania inmates – was formally invalidated and commuted to life imprisonment.
Stanley Howard died in prison on April 6, 1994.
As is frequently found among death sentenced-inmates, Howard had a very troubled and abusive childhood. His parents divorced when he was four and he was placed in a foster home. By the time he was five, he was disruptive at home and school. This led to more foster home placements.
By age 7, he was committing petty crimes. His delinquency escalated to serious property crime and then to violent crime, with resulting periods of confinement. After being in prison from 1954-1958, he entered the Army in 1960 and, after four courts-martial, was dishonorably discharged in 1961.
In 1962, he committed a series of robberies that led to his final period of confinement. In prison, he attempted suicide several times. He was also involved in numerous disciplinary actions and was transferred to multiple institutions due to conduct problems. While on trial for killing Grogan, he attacked his attorney.