A lawyer sheds his defenses after fighting the good fight

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As Michael Travaglia's death penalty trial neared its end, his lawyer, Dante Bertani, surprised his client, his co-counsel, Ned Nakles Jr., and probably himself, by getting a haircut.

Throughout the two weeks of jury selection and testimony, Bertani, who first represented Travaglia in 1981, after what became known as the "Kill for Thrill" murders, slumped at the defense table, gray hair tumbling over his collar and onto the back of a sports jacket.

When it was time to ask jurors to look past the drug-and-liquor fueled miscreant who had killed four people a quarter-century ago, and to spare the life of the born-again Christian Travaglia had become, Bertani showed up for court no longer resembling the Wild Man of Borneo.

"I was trying to make a point," he said. "When Michael Travaglia got into all these things, he was kind of long-haired and wild-looking." Bertani wanted to signal jurors that people change. Possibly there was a bit of superstition there, too.

"I'm not sure," Bertani said. "It was futile, whatever it was."

For a second time since he shot a young single mother, killed two men shanghaied from a Pittsburgh bar -- drowning one -- and then gunned down a rookie policeman, jurors sentenced Michael Travaglia to die. Twenty-five years ago, it was to be in the electric chair. Since then we have progressed. He is to be given a lethal injection.

As Bertani settled in to a riotous-looking desk in the public defender's office, sheriff's deputies perp-walked his client past cameras and into an awaiting van. Travaglia had asked to be returned to Death Row in Greene County as soon as possible.

"His work's there," Bertani explained.

Michael Travaglia's work, such as it is, consists of cleaning floors in various cell blocks, where he also offers advice from the Bible and daily prays for the salvation of his soul. A parade of witnesses, including corrections officers impressed with their ward's self-redemption, took the stand on his behalf. Jurors were impressed, to a degree. Some loud argument was heard emanating from the jury room in the hours leading up to the verdict.

In the end, descriptions of Travaglia and his cohorts, John Lesko and Ricky Rutherford, locating a large rock and then tying it to a terrified church organist they deposited into a frozen lake, seem to have proved more than a counterweight to assurances Travaglia is a new man. He will rejoin Lesko on Death Row. Rutherford, who was a juvenile at the time and a star witness against the other two, is currently attending school in Pittsburgh and testified under oath that he plans to become a drug and alcohol counselor.

Court appeals have allowed Lesko to elude four death warrants and Travaglia two, and gave both men a new sentencing trial because their first took place in an atmosphere akin to 17th century Salem. Bertani represented them back then and he has stayed with the case and in the public defender's office even though he was planning to leave it in January of 1980, just as Travaglia and Lesko were being pulled out of their hideout at the Edison Hotel.

"That kept me from retiring then," Bertani said. He put off retirement for another decade then told his wife, Joan, it was time to move into a more lucrative, exclusively private practice.

"That's when Joan got sick," he said. "She ended up passing away and I had no reason to retire."

Since then, Bertani has found himself ideologically cornered. He was Democratic chairman in Westmoreland, a once reliably liberal county that has gone from industrial Democrat to white-collar Republican in its voting habits the past two presidential elections. Pennsylvania, which went 33 years without executing someone has now killed three men -- two of them demonstrably mad. Travaglia, when returned to Greene County, became Number 232 on Death Row. Once he was Number 8.

Travaglia had hoped to lose his place in line altogether. Bertani thought there was a chance.

"I thought we'd made the case he was a different guy," he said. When prosecutor John Peck walked Rutherford through his memories of the kidnapping, beating and then drowning of William Nicholls, a church organist, in the hours leading up to Officer Leonard Miller's killing, jurors had pretty well been reminded of what Travaglia once was and what the man was seemed too vivid to overcome what he has become.

"That's asking people to get over a lot," Bertani said.

Downstairs the camera crews were catching their last footage of Michael Travaglia under natural light. Before leaving, he told Bertani the sentence might be God's will. The lawyer doesn't buy it.

"God put us here," Bertani said. "It's up to him to take us away in his own good time. You don't solve killings by killing the killer. You lower society to the same level."

He began planning the appeals that day. His client's soul is saved. Bertani is working on the rest of the world.

Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.


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