MECHANICSBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Hampden Township, Cumberland County in the early 1980s was a time of innocence.
After school, kids would play outside until dinnertime.
“You got called in to dinner by the door opening and someone screaming ‘DINNER!'” laughed Melissa Vaccaro, fondly remembering the scene. “Everybody knew everybody’s mother by the sound of their voice and knew when it was time to come in.”
But on Oct. 14, 1981, Melissa’s little brother, 11-year-old Steven Turner, didn’t answer the call. Melissa said it was very unlike him because he loved food.
“After about 45 minutes my mom’s like something is wrong,” Melissa said.
That mother’s intuition led to a father’s search party and a terrible discovery in the woods less than a mile from the Turner’s home.
“We were all sitting there and dad walked in the door and said, ‘Steven’s dead,’ and the whole room erupted. I mean crying, screaming, my dad collapsed on the floor. It was horrible.”
Steven was sexually assaulted, beaten and stabbed.
Hampden Township’s innocence was bludgeoned.
“There was ten days where they didn’t know who the killer was, and even when they did it brought evil home, very close to home for a lot of people,” said Melissa’s husband Frank Vaccaro, of the incident that robbed him of a chance to meet his brother-in-law.
Sixteen-year-old John V. Waters, the Turner’s neighbor, a Hampden Township paper boy, confessed. He was tried a year later, found guilty, and sentenced to life without parole.
End of story.
Except, it wasn’t.
The United States Supreme Court ruled that it’s cruel and unusual to give juveniles mandatory life sentences and ordered them all to be resentenced.
“I don’t think getting out of jail should even be an option,” said Melissa. “It was a really cold, really calculated, really heinous crime.”
Waters re-sentencing hearing is scheduled for Nov. 13 in the Cumberland County Courthouse. Citing that upcoming proceeding, his defense attorney refused to comment for this story.
Turner’s family is speaking out in opposition and has started a petition to keep waters behind bars. It has more than a thousand signatures.
“It (the murder) certainly had an impact on me,” said Cumberland County District Attorney Dave Freed, who grow up in nearby Camp Hill. “I remember it when it happened. I was 11 years old also, the same age as victim.”
Freed was also reticent to talk about his courtroom strategy just ahead of the re-sentencing hearing, but he does believe that Waters shouldn’t walk free anytime soon.
“It’s been 36 years since the murder and he still has a long way to go,” Freed said.
“Right now he’s only 52,” Melissa said of Waters. “That’s a lot of life to live at 52. That’s a lot of damage to a lot of other kids if he gets out and he really isn’t rehabilitated. How do we know he’s rehabilitated?”
Giovanni Reid is one of 81 juvenile lifers released from Pennsylvania prisons in the past year. None of them has re-offended and Reid is confident if given the chance Waters wouldn’t either.
“After 36 years in jail, you’re not the same person that you were when you went in,” Reid said recently while at a Capitol press conference calling for justice reform.
But Melissa and Frank wonder about justice for victims. They call the entire process of resentencing cruel and unusual to them. Yes, they concede, judges across the state can change the sentences of murderers, but changing the hearts and minds of victims’ loved ones won’t be so easy.
“Guess what?” Frank asks. “Steve doesn’t get to go back and change his verdict. Steve is still dead. No matter what the judge does, Steve is still dead.”