For those convicted, it's a long road to the death penalty

Even if Richard Poplawski were to be sentenced to die, it may not happen

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Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. has until June 1 to decide whether to seek the death penalty against the man accused of killing three police officers.

That's the date of Richard Poplawski's formal arraignment, when his lawyer needs to know the district attorney's intention.

In the meantime, dueling online petitions have emerged in the public debate over what should happen to Mr. Poplawski, 22, who is accused of killing Pittsburgh Officers Paul J. Sciullo II, Stephen J. Mayhle and Eric G. Kelly and wounding another during a shootout April 4 in Stanton Heights. And it's a mismatch.

As of yesterday, those asking the district attorney's office to seek the death penalty numbered more than 35,000.

Those asking for life in prison: 12.

But it probably won't make much difference what Mr. Zappala decides. Even if Mr. Poplawski ends up being convicted and sentenced to death, he's not likely to be executed for many years, if ever.

That's because the state, which hasn't executed anyone since Gary Heidnik in 1999, has what Gov. Ed Rendell has called a "de facto" moratorium on executions caused by endless appeals.

It's the same across the country. The average appeals process in capital cases is now 12.7 years, longer than it's ever been.

Pennsylvania has never executed anyone who had taken advantage of the full appeals process in both the state and federal court systems. The three prisoners executed here since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978 all waived their appeal rights.

So unless Mr. Poplawski does that, he will probably join the state's 228 death row inmates in a permanent state of limbo.

"This is not a problem that is slowly getting better," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. "I think it's a given that there won't be any quick resolution."

Exonerations, like those that led to a moratorium on executions in Illinois in 2000, have cast doubt on the entire system.

"The courts are proceeding more carefully with these cases," said Mr. Dieter.

The appeals process is especially lengthy because death row cases have two levels of judicial review. In Pennsylvania, an inmate's petition for a new trial is first heard by the state's appellate courts, up to the state Supreme Court.

An inmate who has exhausted those appeals has the option of repeating the process through a habeas corpus petition in the federal courts.

Each stage of the process can take years. With 3,300 inmates on death row in America -- nearly all of them filing appeals -- the courts are a bottleneck. State clemency hearings can add more time.

"Even in Texas, cases are taking 10 years," said Mr. Dieter. That state historically executes more prisoners than others.

The federal criminal justice system has its own death penalty, but that process is also tedious. The last federal prisoner executed was Louis Jones, put to death in 2003 for the murder of a military private kidnapped from an Air Force base in Texas.

There have been two federal death penalty cases tried in Western Pennsylvania, but no one has been executed.

In the first capital case ever brought here, the U.S. attorney's office sought the death penalty in 2002 for Joseph P. Minerd, accused of the New Year's Day 1999 pipe-bomb killings of his pregnant former girlfriend and her young daughter.

Jurors deadlocked and he was sentenced to life.

In 2007, Beaver County drug dealer Jelani Solomon was spared the federal death penalty when the jury also split.

All capital cases involve heinous crimes, but killers who murder police seem to generate the most outrage from the public and politicians.

Among the latter is U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-Chester, who in 2007 introduced the Death Penalty for Cop Killers Act. His bill would add the killing of an officer to the list of aggravating factors that prosecutors can cite as reasons to seek the death penalty in federal cases.

Mr. Gerlach announced the bill at a news conference, joined by Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor and the local sheriff, Joe Durante, but it didn't gain much traction. His staff said he plans to introduce it again this session.

Pennsylvania already has such a law covering cases tried in state courts.

Despite the high emotions their cases generate, cop killers are not significantly more likely to be executed than people convicted of other kinds of murders. The most comprehensive study, in which researchers from Cleveland State and Ohio State universities looked at police killings between 1976 and 1989, showed that killers of police officers were executed only slightly more often than others.

Comparisons among capital cases are difficult because evidence varies, so the fact that the victim is a police officer is not especially relevant. What counts is the circumstances of the crime and the quality of the prosecution's case.

What's more, other studies have indicated that executing police killers doesn't reduce the risk for officers in jurisdictions where the penalty is imposed compared to states where it is not.

Some killers of police never get to death row.

Leslie Mollett, convicted of shooting state police Cpl. Joseph Pokorny with the trooper's gun on Dec. 12, 2005, is serving a life sentence after the jury deadlocked on the death penalty.

Christina Korbe, the Indiana Township woman accused of killing FBI Agent Sam Hicks on Nov. 19, will also not face the death penalty. Under federal law, the most she can receive is life in prison.

Should Mr. Poplawski be sentenced to death and should Gov. Ed Rendell sign a death warrant, as he has said he would do, the accused killer would be in relatively rare company. Of the 228 inmates for whom governors have signed warrants, just nine were convicted of killing law enforcement officers.

The only local ones are John Lesko and Michael Travaglia, convicted in the notorious "kill for thrill" crime spree of 1979-80 in which they killed four people during an eight-day rampage, including rookie Apollo police officer Leonard Miller.

The most celebrated inmate is Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of shooting Philadelphia police Officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981. Because of his writings in prison, Mr. Abu-Jamal has become a symbol for anti-death penalty advocates, who maintain he was framed. Police and prosecutors have said the evidence against him, including a confession, is overwhelming.

Other inmates awaiting death in police killings include:

• Seifullah Abdul-Salaam, convicted in the 1994 shooting of New Cumberland Officer Willis Cole. Officer Cole, 30, the father of a year-old son, was shot to death after he responded to a robbery at a coin shop. Witnesses said Mr. Abdul-Salaam shot Officer Cole as he tried to arrest an accomplice in the robbery.

• Leslie Beasley, sentenced to death in 1980 for killing Philadelphia Officer Ernest Davis, who had been called to quell a disturbance at a North Philadelphia diner. In a separate case, Mr. Beasley was sentenced to death again that year in the shotgun slaying of a man who was riding a bicycle.

• Edward Bracey, who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1992 for killing Philadelphia Officer Daniel Boyle the year before. Mr. Bracey was driving a stolen car when Officer Boyle stopped him. Prosecutors said Mr. Bracey shot the officer as he sat in his car. He was later arrested after setting himself on fire.

• Dustin Briggs, convicted of killing two Bradford County sheriff's deputies, Michael VanKuren and Chris Burgert, in 2004. The deputies were trying to serve a warrant on a suspected meth lab when Mr. Briggs opened fire.

• Robert Anthony Flor, convicted of killing Newtown Officer Brian S. Gregg in the emergency room of St. Mary Medical Center in Bucks County in 2006. Mr. Flor also wounded another officer and a hospital worker.

• Christopher Roney, convicted in the 1996 shooting of Philadelphia Officer Lauretha Vaird during an attempted bank robbery. She was the first female Philadelphia officer to die in the line of duty.

All of the officers' names are among more than 17,500 inscribed on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C., which dates to 1792.


Torsten Ove can be reached at tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.


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