Mary Lee Hopson made ends meet by running a small convenience store from her first-floor apartment in Fineview, selling cookies and candy to neighborhood kids and newspapers to their parents.
Jerome Burnam knew Miss Mary. His girlfriend lived on the third floor of the same building on Pittsburgh’s Northside.
On December 15, 1988, the unemployed Burnam, looking for money for Christmas gifts, robbed and repeatedly stabbed Hopson. Before she died, Hopson, a 68-year old grandmother, was able to tell her son who had victimized her and to write his name in blood on a bedroom sheet.
The murder weapon was left in Hopson’s apartment, as were bloody footprints. Burnam was arrested the same day as he attempted to flee. Questioned by police, he confessed. The case against Burnam was incontrovertible.
As the jury was being selected for his trial on June 29, 1989, Burnam pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Subsequently allowed to withdraw his plea, Burnam faced a bench trial before Judge Joseph Ridge in February 1991. Burnam’s legal gambit failed when, on February 15, 1991, he was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.
Burnam’s death sentence was quite unexpected. Ridge was famously reluctant to impose such sentences. Both the Assistant Public Defender and the Deputy District Attorney were described as “stunned.”
Burnam aggressively pursued available appeals, an effort aided by evidence that Judge Ridge had met privately with the officer who had taken Burnam’s confession.
Burnam’s death sentence was vacated by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and he was resentenced to life imprisonment on December 7, 1998.
Jerome Burnam remains in prison at SCI-Fayette.
Burnam had a prior juvenile and young adult criminal record, including a conviction for a 1976 robbery of a North Side cigar store.