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Slain officer's wife: Justice served with death sentence

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By Holly Herman
The Reading Eagle

READING, Pa. — Tension filled the Berks County courtroom when the jurors deciding Cletus C. Rivera’s fate returned to announce their verdict Thursday morning.

More than 30 sheriff’s deputies were in the courtroom, many of them in the aisle that separates the prosecution and defense.

Jurors apparently had reached a verdict but Judge Stephen B. Lieberman told them to continue deliberating because there was an error on the verdict slip.

Jurors returned a few minutes later — about 11:30 — to announce their verdict for the Reading man they had convicted last Friday of murdering Reading police Officer Scott A. Wertz on Aug. 6, 2006.

Lieberman asked for silence from the spectators who had packed the courtroom.

"If there are any delays I will hold the people responsible in contempt of court and punish them appropriately," Lieberman said.

The jury announced that Rivera be sentenced to death by lethal injection.

Rivera lowered his head, and Wertz’s friends and relatives looked relieved.

The Northampton County jury was escorted from the courtroom and immediately boarded a bus to return home. Jurors were selected in Northampton County because of extensive publicity in Berks. They had been bused daily to Berks for the trial.

Jurors had deliberated for more than 10 hours over two days before rendering their decision Thursday.

Later, Wertz’s widow, Tricia, thanked Senior Deputy Attorney Generals K. Kenneth Brown and Jonnelle Eshbach, sheriff’s deputies and everyone else who helped with the case.

"I feel relief and happiness," Wertz said. "Justice has been served. He died doing his job. After two years we can breathe a little easier. He was more than just a police officer. He was a father, a son, and a brother."

Wertz’s son, Jared, 14, said he was relieved the case was over and pleased with the outcome. His 9-year-old brother, Joshua, said he was glad Rivera received the death sentence.

Rivera’s family declined comment.

During the formal sentencing that followed the jury’s verdict, Lieberman also imposed an additional sentence of eight years and four months to 19 years in prison.

Lieberman said the community has lost a fine public servant, noting that Rivera has led a life of crime since he was 13.

"Even though the commonwealth has spent thousands of dollars on your rehabilitation as a juvenile, you continue to commit crimes," Lieberman said.

"Your life as a career criminal comes to an end today," he said. "You will be taken to state prison on death row and will remain there until the sentence is carried out."

Rivera’s court-appointed attorneys, Jay M. Nigrini and Richard P. Reynolds, will appeal the conviction and sentence to the state Supreme Court.

Reynolds, who sat solemnly in the courtroom next to Rivera as the verdict was read, said little of the death verdict.

"This is a tragedy for the Wertz family and the Reading police department," he said. "I hope they take some solace in the jury’s verdict."

Nigrini said it was clear the jury gave the life-or-death decision a great deal of consideration.

"Obviously, we’re disappointed for Cletus," Nigrini said. "We respect the jury’s verdict. They thought long and hard before making their decision."

Nigrini said he did not regret putting Rivera on the witness stand.

"I thought Cletus needed to tell his story and he wanted to tell his story," Nigrini said. "Unfortunately, some of the words that came out of his mouth worked against him.

"We can all play Monday morning quarterback, but if I had to do it again I still feel he needed to tell the jury his story."

Rivera testified he intended to kill the officer because he thought the nine-year veteran was going to shoot him.

Wertz, 40, and Officer Malcolm F. Eddinger were part of an undercover auto theft detail when they heard reports over the police radio of shots being fired in a parking lot at Eighth and Walnut streets near City Hall.

Eddinger said he and Wertz chased Rivera after they saw Rivera with a gun.

Eddinger said he saw Rivera shoot Wertz. Witnesses said Wertz was shot in the chest and buttocks.

Copyright 2008 The Reading Eagle

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