Contact wedding, no-touch marriage

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Frances Travaglia leaned on the marble rail that circles the upper rotunda of the Westmoreland County Courthouse and contemplated what has to be one of the strangest marriages this side of celibacy.

"We had a contact wedding," she said. Contact weddings, insofar as that sort of thing is allowed on Death Row, involve the holding of hands and an exchange of vows.

"We had a kiss," she said. "That was it." Further communications between Mr. and Mrs. Michael Travaglia occur every Monday behind reinforced glass via an intercom. They celebrated their 13th anniversary this April.

The honeymoon will have to wait for the afterlife.

"We try not to think of it in that way," she said.

Michael Travaglia is on trial for his life. Convicted in 1981 of the murder of a rookie policeman, the grande finale to an eight-day spree that left four dead, Michael Travaglia admits he is guilty. Because of an error in his sentencing 24 years ago, he is now before a jury that will decide whether he should get the death penalty or be given life without parole.

Travaglia is guilty as sin, but, because of his conversion to fundamental Christianity in 1982, he has lived a less sinful life as a prison inmate.

A succession of prison officers, a psychologist and such people as are forgiving enough to befriend a cop-killer, testified for him this week. They attested to his religious nature, his gentlemanly manner, his general decency -- everything anyone could say to remind the world that the man one jury convicted in 1981 might not be the same one they're sentencing in 2005.

"He thinks he still has something to offer the world," said Dante Bertani, Travaglia's defense lawyer.

What he has to offer the former Frances Andrasy, who met him through her church, first visited on Christmas Day in 1990 and then wed him two years later, is hard to fathom absent an understanding of the religious bond that holds them fast.

On the stand this week, she explained how she and her husband share Bible study, something that involves each taking out a Bible at 8:30 p.m., reading prearranged chapters, then praying.

"We're reading the same thing and praying at the same time," she explained.

She had cancer. He called to console her. She is poor, 12 years older than he, and lives with her mother. Materially, all he has received is a twice-a-year donation of money in his name to the prison commissary.

Jurors, who watched impassively, had to be wondering the same thing Ned Nakles, the other half of the Travaglia defense team, asked this woman who married into Death Row.

"Do you realize how odd this all sounds?"

"Objection," said prosecutor John Peck.

"Sustained," said Judge John Blahovec.

Answered, I thought. In the moments before she was called to the stand, those moments when she was leaning on that marble rail and peering into the depths of the courthouse, I asked Frances Travaglia if it wasn't a strange decision to make with her life, marrying a converted murderer the state wants to kill.

"You count the cost and then you make the decision," she said. "Because every decision you make has consequences."

Would that 12 jurors are thinking the same thing.


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


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