On January 15, 1985, a month after being released from prison for armed robbery, Salvador Santiago murdered 20-year old Dean K. O’Hara in New Castle (Lawrence County), Pennsylvania, after O’Hara stopped to help him with his disabled car.
Santiago, 22, then stole O’Hara’s car and fled. Two days later, he robbed the Minuteman Press shop on East Carson St. on Pittsburgh’s South Side and shot to death store clerk Patrick Huber.
Based on information provided by witnesses, on January 17, state police issued a warrant for Santiago’s arrest for killing O’Hara. Approximately three weeks later, based on descriptions matching witness reports from New Castle, Santiago was connected to Huber’s killing and the search intensified.
He was arrested by FBI agents in Washington D.C. on April 4, 1985, for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution for O’Hara’s killing. Once questioned by Pittsburgh Police, Santiago confessed to killing Huber. He told police voices he heard directed him to perform the killings.
At the time of his arrest, Santiago, who already had a lengthy criminal record, was also wanted in connection with the non-fatal shooting of a bus station clerk during a robbery in Sharon, Pennsylvania, in early January 1985.
Soon after his arrest, his girlfriend, Marilyn Denise Giles, whom he had met in Washington, D.C. in February 1985, told police of the multiple murders Santiago had confessed to her.
At trial in Lawrence County, Santiago was found guilty of second-degree murder but mentally ill in the O’Hara case and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Despite that and his earlier diagnosis as “a seriously disturbed paranoid schizophrenic,” Santiago’s mental health defense failed and he was convicted of first-degree murder on April 26, 1986, in the Huber case. The jury favored the prosecution’s argument that “a conscience never formed” in Santiago.
After brief deliberations following the penalty phase of Santiago’s trial, he was sentenced to death on April 28. The jury again rejected the defense claim that Santiago’s guilt was diminished by mental illness.
While Santiago’s life sentence was upheld on appeal (Commonwealth v. Santiago, 376 Pa. Super. 54, 1988), his first-degree murder conviction and death sentence were reversed (Commonwealth v. Santiago, 528 Pa. 516, 1991) after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that he had been questioned without the benefit of counsel when he spoke with Pittsburgh police soon after his arrest. A new trial was ordered.
Retried, he was convicted of first-degree murder on September 9, 1992, and sentenced to death a second time. That conviction was sustained on appeal by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court (Commonwealth v. Santiago, 541 Pa. 188, 1995).
After twenty-three years of appeals that reached all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and multiple stays of his execution, Santiago’s death sentence was vacated by the state supreme court and he was resentenced to life imprisonment on August 25, 2009. The decision was based on a finding of ineffective counsel in his second death penalty conviction. That conclusion was reached as part an agreement with his counsel that Santiago would cease all further appeals.
Salvador Santiago is serving a life sentence in SCI-Greene.