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New hearing ordered for Pa. mass killer

The state Supreme Court has ordered another competency hearing for a man who killed 13 people in a 1982 shooting rampage in northeastern Pennsylvania.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The state Supreme Court has ordered another competency hearing for a man who killed 13 people in a 1982 shooting rampage in northeastern Pennsylvania.

The high court set aside a judge's determination that George Banks is too mentally unstable to be executed, saying former Luzerne County Judge Michael Conahan failed to conduct an independent review of the evidence as required and simply adopted the conclusions of Banks' attorney as his own.

Conahan — who was removed from the bench for corruption earlier this year — ruled in September 2008 that Banks is psychotic and unable to comprehend his sentence or participate in his defense, making him incompetent to be put to death.

Banks, whose victims included five of his own children, had "a hopeless prognosis" and "will not improve to any acceptable degree," the judge wrote.

The Supreme Court's order, made public on Friday, rejected Conahan's analysis and directed the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas to hold another hearing on Bank's competency.

"Conahan simply adopted ... George Banks' counsel's proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law wholesale as his purported 'Determination on Competency Issues.' That performance violated this court's oft-repeated requirement of an autonomous judicial expression of the reasons for granting or denying post-conviction relief," the court said.

It was the second time that the Supreme Court has overruled Conahan on Banks.

After the court halted Banks' execution in December 2004 and ordered a hearing to determine his mental state, Conahan ruled in early 2006 that the killer couldn't be put to death. But the court ordered a fresh hearing after finding that Conahan improperly barred a prosecution psychiatrist from testifying, leading to a second hearing at the state prison in Graterford last August.

Conahan was charged in January with accepting millions of dollars in kickbacks to place youth offenders in privately owned detention centers. He initially pleaded guilty to fraud but changed his plea this month and faces trial in federal court.

Banks' attorney, Al Flora, said Friday that a third competency hearing will be "a total waste of time."

"There's going to be no change as to his mental health status. You still have a guy who's severely mentally ill. I just don't know where we're going on this thing," he said.

Prosecutors have argued that Banks comprehends the reason for his death sentence and thus meets the legal standard for execution.

"Obviously, we're very pleased with the Supreme Court's decision, and we look forward to a new hearing," said Luzerne County District Attorney Jackie Musto Carroll.

Banks, a former prison guard, used a semiautomatic rifle in his Sept. 25, 1982, rampage through two houses in Wilkes-Barre and nearby Jenkins Township. He killed a total of seven children; his three live-in girlfriends; an ex-girlfriend; her mother; and a bystander in the street.

Banks, who is biracial, has maintained that he shot his children to spare them the racial prejudice he endured in Wilkes-Barre, a city 100 miles north of Philadelphia. Prosecutors noted his history of abusing women and said he had been involved in a nasty custody battle with one of the victims.

Defense experts testified at last year's hearing that Banks believes his sentence has been vacated by God or Jesus, that he is no longer under the threat of death, and that he is being held in prison as part of a conspiracy to get him to renounce his religious beliefs.