Poplawski's trial delayed in police killings

Defense's background expert given extra time

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A judge on Monday delayed the trial of Richard Poplawski until April, granting his attorneys' request for more time to prepare his defense.

Jury selection in the case of the man charged with killing three Pittsburgh police officers will start April 11 with the trial two weeks later, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning said.

The trial had been planned for Oct. 12, but assistant public defender Lisa G. Middleman asked for a delay, saying an expert needed months to vet Mr. Poplawski's background. That information would be used by defense attorneys seeking to spare Mr. Poplawski from the death penalty.

"There will be no further continuances of this matter for any reason," the judge told Ms. Middleman. "Whatever the experts need to do, they need to do it."

Mr. Poplawski, 23, is charged in the deadly shootings of Officers Eric G. Kelly, Paul J. Sciullo II and Stephen J. Mayhle on April 4, 2009, at his mother's home in Stanton Heights. The additional time will allow a mitigation specialist to pore over Mr. Poplawski's school, medical, military and criminal records and conduct extensive interviews with him and his family. The labor-intensive process can take six months to a year while the specialist gathers information and a clinician studies it for signs of mental illness, information that could aid his defense if the case goes to the penalty phase.

"It's basically like writing a biography of a person," testified mitigation specialist Jennifer Wynn, who is not working on Mr. Poplawski's case. Much time is spent "building rapport, gaining trust and allowing the defendant to see that you are a person who is genuinely there to support him."

The same trust must be established with family members, she said.

Ms. Middleman said she wants to hire a local specialist, Bill Cammarata, who can't begin work on the case until September but has met with Mr. Poplawski.

Ms. Wynn said she would not have time to take on Mr. Poplawski's case but has worked with another of his attorneys, J. Richard Narvin, who on Monday filed a motion to be removed from the case.

Deputy district attorney Mark V. Tranquilli told the judge that move could further stall the trial.

"Anybody who can't prepare this case in six months shouldn't have a law degree," said Judge Manning, who made no decision on the motion. Mr. Narvin's request came after Mr. Poplawski sent a two-page handwritten letter to Judge Manning saying he had "a serious problem" with Mr. Narvin's performance.

"It seems his workload is far too heavy, otherwise his effort must be described as worse than lackluster," Mr. Poplawski wrote. "Having been to the jail precious few times (his last appearance being more than a year ago) Mr. Narvin has failed utterly in developing any form of working relationship with me."

Among Mr. Poplawski's complaints, he wrote that during a visit with his mother "Mr. Narvin reclined and ate popcorn while Ms. Middleman took notes," and that no other friends or relatives had heard from Mr. Narvin.

"From what I can tell, Mr. Narvin has not conducted any type of independent investigation," Mr. Poplawski wrote. "I am concerned that his negligence has resulted in increased judicial involvement in the building of my defense. I worry that this puts me, the defendant, at a disadvantage by giving the commonwealth undue insight into the workings of the defense team."

Mr. Poplawski began to share his concerns with the judge, who cut him off. "He's appointed to represent you, not to hold your hand," the judge said.

Mr. Narvin said his involvement in the case would create more problems.

Before he was halted, Mr. Poplawski told the judge, "We all have an interest in seeing that things are done right in this case."


Sadie Gurman: sgurman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878.


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