The evidence that Richard Poplawski killed three Pittsburgh police officers in 2009 was so strong, the chief justice of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court said Wednesday, that he wondered why the prosecution felt the need to go over the top.
“What this DA did was build in a new trial,” said Chief Justice Ronald Castille, presiding over a session of the court hearing Poplawski’s appeal. “The crime itself is horrible. Why do you need things like bagpipes playing ‘Amazing Grace?’ ”
The court, sitting in Pittsburgh, listened as Poplawski’s defense attorney argued that the 27-year-old deserved a new trial in the shooting deaths of the three officers who were responding to a domestic call at a home in Stanton Heights. Poplawski was sentenced to death in 2011.
Justices questioned defense assertions that the prosecution purposely introduced inflammatory evidence. They pushed the commonwealth to explain allegations that the prosecutor disregarded the trial court’s instructions.
Chief Justice Castille raised sharp questions about Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning’s lack of action in enforcing his own pretrial rulings.
Although she raised six issues on appeal, defense attorney Carrie Allman focused on just three: that the prosecution improperly argued future dangerousness to the jury; that the prosecution admitted irrelevant evidence related to a white nationalist website that Poplawski visited in the hours before the April 4, 2009, attack; and that the prosecution improperly showed a video of the officers’ funerals to jurors.
It likely will be months before the court issues a decision.
Ms. Allman argued that then-Deputy District Attorney Mark V. Tranquilli showed the jury, during the penalty phase, a video of the caskets of Officers Paul J. Sciullo II, Stephen J. Mayhle and Eric G. Kelly being carried out of the City-County Building in Downtown as bagpipers played “Amazing Grace.”
The video included images of the officers’ headstones and a moment of silence.
“None of this is appropriate or relevant or permissible in a penalty phase,” Ms. Allman said. “They take the jury directly to the funeral services. It makes them direct participants.”
But Justices Max Baer and Seamus McCaffery questioned whether such information shows the broader impact of the deaths on the community.
“Don’t they show the uniqueness of the individuals in the aggregate?” Justice Baer asked.
Justices J. Michael Eakin and McCaffery also questioned why seeing such images would be a problem for a jury that had already seen autopsy and crime-scene photos.
“The jury already saw these people lying dead on the floor?” Justice Eakin asked.
“I’m not so sure I see where the prejudice is,” Justice McCaffery added. “They died at the hands of an armed criminal.”
In her response, Assistant District Attorney Peggy Ivory said the prosecution was not making an emotional appeal.
“It shows the officers’ caskets being brought out. It’s nothing else,” she said.
But Justice Debra Todd replied, “I’ve never heard bagpipes playing ‘Amazing Grace’ and it not be an emotional appeal.”
Under repeated questioning by Justice Todd, Ms. Ivory said she could not recall hearing bagpipes in the video.
On the issue of the white nationalist website, Ms. Allman was questioned about possible relevance.
“Doesn’t the website show his propensity for violence?” asked Justice Correale Stevens.
“It’s pretty hard to argue there’s not some relevance here,” said Justice Debra Todd.
But, Ms. Allman replied, “It doesn’t go to intent. He shot the officers who came through the door.”
Although race may not have been the motivation, Justice Stevens continued, “They’re authority figures.”
Ms. Allman said there was no evidence of anti-authoritarian views on that site.
“The commonwealth took that information and beat the jury over the head with it,” she said.
Justice Thomas Saylor questioned the admission of the website evidence.
“The defendant shot three officers in cold blood,” he said. “What was the commonwealth’s theory? Why did they need it?”
Ms. Allman said the admission of that evidence was counter to pretrial rulings Judge Manning made in the case.
“Where was the judge when this was going on?” Justice Castille asked. “When you read the record, it seems like he didn’t do anything to enforce the pretrial rulings.”
“The parameters changed constantly and consistently throughout the trial,” Ms. Allman said.
As for arguing future dangerousness, which is prohibited under court rules, Ms. Allman said Mr. Tranquilli, who won a seat on the Allegheny County Common Pleas bench last year, referred to Poplawski as “a dog who bit once and would bite again.”
His argument, she continued, was designed to convince the jury that Poplawski would remain a danger to the inmate and officer populations in prison if he were not sentenced to death.
Despite an admonishment by Judge Manning at openings, Mr. Tranquilli repeated the same language at closings, Ms. Allman said.
But Ms. Ivory responded that Mr. Tranquilli did not call Poplawski a dog. Instead, he said he was like one.
“I don’t care what the crime is, you have the prosecutor referring to him as a dog,” said Justice Castille. “How do we countenance that?”
Then Justice Saylor added, “The chief justice is asking the commonwealth why we need this hyperbole?”
As her argument continued, Ms. Ivory’s voice cracked and she stopped talking.
Three justices asked whether she needed a break. Several seconds later, she continued, but with difficulty.
Justice Correale Stevens, who appeared to be attempting to help her get back on track, asked, “You would agree there is overwhelming evidence to justify the jury’s verdict in this case?”
“Yes,” Ms. Ivory answered. “That’s probably the most important point.”
Paula Reed Ward: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard. First Published April 9, 2014 10:59 AM