Cop killer describes harsh conditions on death row
By Nicole C. Brambilla, December 13, 2015
It’s difficult to sleep on death row. Not because of the sequence of events
that led a person there or a nagging conscience, but because the lights
never really go out.
Convicted cop killer Cletus C. Rivera said he sleeps with his head wrapped
in a T-shirt and covered in a sweater to block out the fluorescent beams,
which are only dimmed at night.
“The lights are on 24 hours in the cell; that’s a form of torture,” Rivera
said of the State Correctional Institution at Greene, where he is
imprisoned while appealing his death sentence for the 2006 murder of
Reading police Officer Scott A. Wertz.
“That can even lead to cancer,” he said. “They won’t even acknowledge it.”
He is correct about the potential risks of constant light. While the
consequences of nighttime light on the human body is still an emerging
field, studies in animals suggest 24-7 light exposure can increase the risk
of certain types of cancer because it disrupts the production of melatonin,
which is made during sleep.
The 33-year-old didn’t specifically mention this study, but it is apparent
Rivera has read up on the subject.
Rivera is one of 181 men and women sentenced to death in Pennsylvania.
Berks County has 11 inmates on death row, the third most in the
commonwealth behind Philadelphia and York counties.
He’s been on death row since a Northampton County jury – bused in daily
because of heavy Berks County news coverage of the case – deliberated more
than 10 hours in 2008 and returned with a death sentence.
Rivera agreed to an interview to discuss the conditions on death row while
acknowledging the pain he caused the Wertz family and offering to apologize
if he could speak with them.
The maximum security prison, which houses the bulk of the state’s death row
inmates, sits on a sloping 128 acres surrounded by tree-covered hills in
Franklin Township in Greene County. The facility, located in the southwest
corner of the state about 280 miles from Reading, is busting at the seams.
SCI Greene has a bed capacity of 1,478 but houses more than 1,700 inmates.
On L block behind the rings of coiled barbed wire that run the fence line,
Rivera can watch officers leave the prison from a small window in the cell
to which he is confined 22 hours a day.
For all the public discussion about the death penalty – from execution
methods and dwindling lethal injection supplies to Gov. Tom Wolf’s
moratorium on the sentence – the conditions of death row confinement,
including solitary, rarely are discussed.
Courts are beginning to weigh in on the issue.
Two years ago, U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema for the Eastern
District of Virginia found in Prieto v. Clark that Virginia had violated
the Constitution by automatically placing death row inmates in indefinite
isolation. A federal appeals court this year, though, ruled solitary
confinement does not violate prisoners’ rights.
Rivera doesn’t mention either ruling by name as a jailhouse lawyer might,
but it’s clear he’s been using his time on death row to get acquainted with
the issues surrounding his incarceration.
“I wasn’t sentenced to solitary confinement,” Rivera said. “We were just
sentenced to death.”
‘It can get to you’
Life on death row is a sequence of tight spaces – a roughly
8-foot-by-10-foot cell, the prison yard and library, shower stalls Rivera
described as phone-booth size.
“Everywhere you go you’re boxed in,” he said.
In his tidy, 85-square-foot cell, Rivera has a typewriter and a small
collection of books – “The GED for Dummies,” the Bible, a dictionary.
Rivera said he has a particular interest in biographies, and Nelson
Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom” is on his reading list.
“I’ve been using my time to grow,” Rivera said, noting he was studying to
take an exam for a high school equivalency diploma. “I’m a better me.”
He also has in his cell some pictures of family and the beach, and a TV. He
enjoys watching the post-apocalyptic world of zombies in “The Walking Dead”
and “Mr. Robot,” a new thriller series that follows a New York City hacker
While he pays $17 a month for 40 cable channels, Rivera said he doesn’t
watch much TV.
“I see TV as a pacifier,” he said. “It’s a distraction.”
Most days he listens to music – pop, jazz, rock, hip-hop, anything but
country. The radio helps drown out the loud speakers and other inmates. In
isolation, Rivera said, inmates can start to hear things, and some talk to
“It’s really, really horrible,” Rivera said. “If you’re not strong
mentally, it can get to you.”
What does penetrate Rivera’s cool exterior is his kids.
Since his arrest Rivera has missed holidays, get-togethers, even the
funeral last spring for his grandmother, the nucleus of the family. When
the father of four was taken into custody, his youngest child was an infant
and his oldest just 8.
Over the past nine years, Rivera also has missed all the pivotal moments
parents witness as their children grow up – from his youngest child
learning to walk and his first word to the countless football games his
older boys played and his daughter’s cheerleading days.
He has had to watch his kids grow up from behind a thick window in the
prison’s visiting room. Burned into Rivera’s memory was a visit when his
oldest son cried inconsolably, wishing his dad could come home. Because
death row inmates are not permitted to make contact with visitors, all
Rivera could do was watch as his daughter hugged his son.
“That broke my heart,” Rivera said.
The visits are few and far between, and a hardship on his children, who
skip meals and wind up eating snacks from a vending machine to spend the
day with their dad. His cousin Yvette Rivera said that while the visits are
a lifeline for Rivera, it’s difficult for his kids.
“There’s nothing for them to look forward to,” said Yvette Rivera, 32.
“They know that he’s never coming home.”
Rivera thinks a lot about that fateful night when he shot and killed Wertz
in a foot chase near City Hall. Rivera said it’s a teaching moment for his
kids when they make the four-plus hour trek across the state to cram into a
small visitors’ room.
“I try to make myself an example of what not to do,” Rivera said. “I tell
my son to be a better Cletus.”
‘It’s easy to become hopeless’
Gov. Ed Rendell signed Rivera’s execution warrant on Aug. 23, 2010. His
execution date was set for Oct. 20 of that year.
“I had a brief punch-in-the-gut moment,” Rivera said of the death warrant.
“I didn’t dwell on it. I knew what to expect, so I braced myself for it.
It’s a real moment. It brought me back to being sentenced.”
Family members said the death sentence took them by surprise.
“I don’t know that anyone can prepare for a death sentence,” Yvette Rivera
said. “It was a huge shock for the entire family.”
Rivera received a stay of execution a week after Rendell signed his death
Pennsylvania’s dysfunctional system has sent hundreds to death row in the
modern era but has only executed three people, all of whom gave up their
appeals. The commonwealth’s last execution was in 1999.
The state’s capital punishment system has been criticized for its
disproportionate impact on poor and minorities as well as its costs and
accuracy – all cited in the governor’s moratorium, which set off a
“It’s easy to become hopeless,” Rivera said. “Forget about the politics
about the death penalty. When you’re in this position, you should always be
in the mindset that it can happen.”
Predictably, Rivera would like to see the death penalty abolished.
Though Rivera said he would not discuss his case, he returned to that night
again and again, saying he knows his situation is self-made.
“I know I’m wrong, and I deserve to be in jail,” Rivera said. “But I don’t
believe I deserve the death penalty. My actions were meant to save my
If he could talk to the slain officer’s widow, Tricia Wertz, Rivera said he
would apologize for the killing.
“It pains me that I’m responsible for taking away a father and a husband,”
Rivera has maintained that he shot and killed Wertz in self-defense. At the
time, Wertz was working an undercover auto detail in plain clothes. It is
for this reason Rivera and his family believed he would get a life
“I know people are mad at me,” Rivera said. “I hope they pray to find
forgiveness, not for me, but so that they can move forward in life.”