Jury's choice of homicide degrees a matter of life, death in Penn Hills murder case

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Ronald Robinson went to Danyal Morton's home armed with a semi-automatic assault rifle and a 9 mm pistol.

He told a friend that he was going to get his money back for $500 worth of crack cocaine he'd fronted the man, and another friend heard him say "we can either go to the hands or we can go to the guns," in reference to settling the score.

But no one in the double-homicide trial has testified that Robinson ever spoke about hurting a police officer -- and unlike in the case against Richard Poplawski, who wore a bullet-proof vest and lay in wait for Pittsburgh officers responding to his home -- there has been no evidence that Robinson planned to kill Penn Hills police Officer Michael Crawshaw, who rolled up on the Johnston Road scene as the man was fleeing Morton's house.

Deputy District Attorney Mark V. Tranquilli will argue to the jury hearing closing arguments this morning that it should find Robinson guilty of first-degree murder for both men.

Defense attorney Veronica Brestensky, who admitted in her opening statement the first day of trial that her client killed Officer Crawshaw and Morton, is asking for a verdict of second-degree murder.

If the jurors return first degree for either victim, the case moves into a penalty phase in which the prosecution will try to convince them to sentence Robinson to death, while the defense will attempt to sway them into finding a sentence of life in prison with no chance for parole.

A death verdict must be unanimous.

Experts agree that the defense has an uphill battle in attempting to get second-degree murder.

"It may be the only tenable position the defense has," said John Burkoff, criminal law professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

According to the Pennsylvania standard criminal jury instruction, which will be provided to the Robinson panel this morning by Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Kevin G. Sasinoski, both first- and second-degree murders require malice.

The differences between the two types of murder at play in the Robinson case have to do with intent and premeditation.

Second-degree murder is defined as the taking of a life during the commission of another crime -- in the Robinson case, the defense said that could be either robbery or burglary.

First-degree murder, though, requires "specific intent to kill" and malice.

According to the instruction, "A person has the specific intent to kill if he or she has a fully formed intent to kill and is conscious of his or her own intention."

If a person has the specific intent to kill, that, under the law, is a killing with malice.

Specific intent to kill, the instruction goes on, is "willful, deliberate and premeditated."

The jury in the Robinson case will be instructed that premeditation "does not require planning or previous thought or any particular length of time. It can occur quickly. All that is necessary is that there be time enough so that the defendant can and does fully form an intent to kill and is conscious of that intention."

Often, a judge will explain to the jury that intent can be formed in an instant.

In some jurisdictions premeditation requires enough time for reflection, Mr. Burkoff said.

"The rule in Pennsylvania is that no time is too short for a person to premeditate," he said.

In the Robinson case, for example, the defendant saw Officer Crawshaw and decided to shoot.

Robinson told police in his confession that when he confronted Morton inside the home on the evening of Dec. 6, 2009, "[Stuff] went haywire."

Then, as he fled down Johnston Road, Officer Crawshaw pulled up in his patrol car.

Robinson told detectives he heard the officer yell, "Don't move," that he became scared and started firing his weapon.

"Even though it was momentary, only a couple seconds, that's premeditation in Pennsylvania," Mr. Burkoff said.

As for intent, the professor continued, the jury can find Robinson had it simply in the act of firing a gun in the direction of a police officer.

Evidence at trial showed that at least 13 shots were fired from Robinson's assault rifle at Officer Crawshaw's car.

The officer was struck twice -- once in the left arm and once in the head.

Often, a defendant will try to argue that even though he fired the shots that his intent was only to scare the target, not kill him, Mr. Burkoff said.

If the jury were to believe that, he continued, then that is not first-degree murder, but it would be second-degree because the death occurred during the commission of another crime -- in this case, fleeing.

"It's not an easy defense to make, and it's not likely to work," Mr. Burkoff said.

Further, he continued, there's an additional legal presumption that if a person fires a weapon into a vital part of the body that a jury may infer the defendant had a specific intent to kill.

If the case against Robinson moves into the penalty phase, the prosecution then must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, the existence of at least one aggravating factor.

The prosecution listed several in seeking the death penalty for Robinson regarding Officer Crawshaw, including that the victim was a police officer killed in the line of duty; that the killing occurred during the commission of another felony; that Robinson has a significant criminal history and that two people were killed.

In the Morton slaying, an aggravating circumstances listed is that he was involved, or in competition, with Robinson in the sale or distribution of drugs, and that his death was related to that association.

The defense must prove mitigating circumstances -- reasons it believes Robinson should not be executed -- by the lower standard of preponderance of the evidence.

The jury must find at least one aggravating factor to reach a death sentence, and if they agree there are mitigating factors, they must be outweighed by aggravating factors.

Former federal prosecutor Tina O. Miller said that in Robinson's case, the aggravating factors that would be presented will be limited to those related to the first-degree murder conviction.

That means, she said, that if Robinson is convicted of first-degree murder of only Morton, then testimony in the penalty phase about Officer Crawshaw would likely be limited.

"The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has said that victim impact evidence is relevant to the defendant's moral culpability because it relates a defendant's actions directly to the victim of that particular crime," Ms. Miller said.

But, she continued, the prosecution could still argue that under the law, a judge can admit evidence "that the court deems relevant and admissible on the question of the sentence to be imposed.

"Victim impact evidence was historically a hotly debated topic in courts across the country, and for many years it wasn't admissible at all."

Although it is allowed in Pennsylvania, it is limited to the victim's personal characteristics and the emotional impact of the death on the victim's family, she said.

Ms. Miller called it "very powerful evidence," which is why courts are cautious in how it is admitted.

Mr. Burkoff added that, even if the case reaches a penalty phase for Morton's death, and the prosecution is limited in presenting evidence about Officer Crawshaw's death, the jurors may be unable to separate that from what they heard during the guilt phase of the trial.

"People are naturally sympathetic when a police officer is slain in the line of duty, because such an act strikes at the heart of a society that is based on respect for the rule of law," Ms. Miller said. "But the question for the jurors is 'can you put that sympathy aside and decide the case based on the facts and the evidence?' "

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Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620. First Published January 14, 2013 5:00 AM


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