Poplawski guilty on all counts

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Highlights of Day 6 of the trial of Richard Poplawski, charged with killing Pittsburgh police Officers Eric Kelly, Paul Sciullo Jr. and Stephen Mayhle in April 2009:

After Richard Poplawski was found guilty on all 28 counts against him, including three counts of first-degree murder, Pittsburgh police sprang into action.


They lined one wall of the Courthouse and stood in silent scorn as sheriff's deputies marched the puffy-faced, glazed-eyed defendant past in chains.

Then they shifted to another hallway, to greet the families of the slain officers with hugs.

They were silent as public defender Lisa Middleman exited the courtroom.

The jury, Ms. Middleman said, "came to the decision that they thought was appropriate based on the evidence."

As Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson walked down the courthouse stairs, he said the bureau and the entire region's law enforcement got what it expected.

"It has taken us two long years to get to this point, and we are near the end of it," he said. "We'll finally have some finality and hopefully we'll be able to begin to put this behind us."

Outside of the courthouse, the defendant's mother, Margaret Poplawski, was smarting from being told to leave the courtroom after the verdict was announced.

She said she has been treated with disrespect all week, and didn't know why. "Because I continue to love him? ... I did not want this for anybody. I did not want this for the community. I did not want this for the city of Pittsburgh.

"I called them for help."

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning's courtroom, which was full of police officers, relatives and spectators, was silent as the jury announced its verdict just before 8:30 p.m. Mr. Poplawski, too, was quiet as he exited the room. The judge had a sheriff's deputy escort Mr. Poplawski's mother out of the room just after the verdict. He later said he feared she was on the verge of an outburst.

Mr. Poplawski's grandmother and other relatives were also in the courtroom, but said nothing as they left.

The same group of jurors, five women and seven men who were brought here from Dauphin County due to intense pretrial publicity, now must decide whether Mr. Poplawski should spend life in prison or die by lethal injection. That penalty phase will begin Monday.

The jury returned a verdict of guilty on first-degree homicide and all other charges around 8:20 p.m.

The jury is returning to the courtroom, and a verdict is expected within a few minutes.

Jurors just returned to the courtroom briefly to ask Judge Manning two questions: they wanted to know if they could see or hear Officer Stephen Mescan's testimony regarding the officers in the armored vehicle and if they could have the names of the officers involved in the efforts to reach Officer Mayhle.

To the first question, the judge told them they are not allowed to have transcripts of witness testimony in the jury room. To the second, he could only tell that the names of the officers may be in the exhibits, which they can review.

The jurors told Judge Manning they would continue deliberating before dinner.

After the jury began its deliberations, Deputy District Attorney Mark V. Tranquilli told reporters outside the courtroom that police and prosecutors "exhaustively researched" whether Mr. Poplawski's mother should be charged with a crime but found no evidence that she should be.

He said Margaret Poplawski did one thing wrong by not calling 911 operaters to warn them they her son was strapping on a bullet-proof vest, grabbing guns and "readying for battle."

Still, he added, she was not legally obligated to do so, though she may have had a moral duty.

He said he warned the officers' families that the trial would be difficult and trying for them and plans to call upon them to share intimate stories of their loss with jurors if the capital case reaches the penalty phase.

The jury has begun deliberations in the trial of Richard Poplawski. Judge Manning charged the jury after a break, and deliberations began shortly after 4 p.m.

Deputy District Attorney Mark Tranquilli wrapped up more than an hour's worth of emotionally charged closing arguments earlier this afternoon in which he took jurors step by step through the crime, speaking of Mr. Poplawski's choices to kill and chances to stop as the violence unfolded over four hours.

While Defense Attorney Lisa Middleman argued moments before that her client was only trying to keep officers from coming into his house, Mr. Tranquilli said he took decisive action to kill three of them when he dressed himself in a bullet-proof vest and grabbed his weapons.

Ambushing Officer Sciullo, engaging Officer Mayhle in a gunfight and shooting him while he was down, assassinating Officer Kelly and "engaging an armored vehicle full of SWAT members trying to kill them ... those are all choices," Mr. Tranquilli said. "He had chances to just stop. He had chances to just let the officers go home to their families. He had chances to just do what his mother told him to do and get out of the house. He had chances to stop this continuum of death. He didn't."

The officers' relatives sobbed quietly as Mr. Tranquilli delivered his message, showing jurors the same grisly crime scene and autopsy photos he presented during five days of testimony, describing again the officers "heroic" efforts to bring down the gunman and save their downed comrades.

He said jurors should convict Mr. Poplawski on first-degree murder in the slayings of the three officers and convict him on more than two dozen other counts related to his firing upon SWAT officers and shooting another patrolman in the hand.

"Every single one of those guys was put in harm's way by Richard Poplawski,and he wanted to kill every single one of them," Mr. Tranquilli said. "He awaits your good judgment."

Mr. Tranquilli also said Ms. Middleman's allusions that Mr. Poplawski's mother was also involved in the shooting are false, saying "what evidence do we have that Mrs. Poplawski did anything to these police officers other than call them?" He noted that Mr. Poplawski, in interviews and phone calls with 911 employees and police, took responsibility for the violence without once mentioning his mother. The DNA found on the guns belonged to him and no one else, he continued, calling Ms. Middleman's suggestions "something merely to cause a distraction."

As the courtroom emptied, a line of officers, each of whom played a role in the April 4 incident, accepted embraces and handshakes from the families, tears in their eyes. As Mr. Tranquilli passed, they each gave him a pat on the back.

After Judge Manning charges the jury later this afternoon, the jury will begin to deilberate.

If the verdict is guilty of first-degree homicide, the case will move to the penalty phase, in which the jury will decide on whether to give the death penalty. There is no possibility of parole for first-degree murder in Pennsylvania, so the jury's choices would be death or life without parole.

The prosecution finished its closing shortly after 2 p.m. today. It took about 75 minutes, and the judge then told the jury they'd have an hour break before he charges them in the case.

Defense attorney Lisa Middleman told jurors that they should find her client guilty of numerous crimes in his shootout with police, including attempted homicide, but should not find him guilty of first-degree homicide in the three officers' deaths, suggesting Mr. Poplawski's mother may have been involved in the shootings of two of them.

During her hour-long closing, Ms. Middleman said there was no doubt Mr. Poplawski had fatally shot Officer Eric Kelly but suggested that was not his intent. Instead, she offered, he was shooting at Officer Kelly's car and had no "specific intent," to kill him, which is necessary for a first-degree conviction. She said her client was only trying to keep police from coming into his house.

As for the deaths of Officers Paul J. Scuillo II and Stephen J. Mayhle, she said there were holes in the prosecution's case about how they came to be fatally wounded.

"There are only two people who know what happened in that house other than the people who were killed," she said. "What do you infer from the prosecution not calling Margaret Poplawski as a witness in this case?

"Something so sick was going on in that house on April 4 and for years before that... A mental illness component was going on in that house."

She said Mrs. Poplawski's behavior was "bizarre" and the prosecution has made a "dangerous assumption in this case to treat Margaret Poplawski as a victim. They never tested her hands for gunshot residue, they never got her DNA, they never tested her clothes.

"They have nothing with which to explore the possibility she was involved in this incident. This is the lack of evidence that should cause you to pause and hesitate."

She said what is not known is how Mrs. Poplawski's demeanor may have changed between 7:05 a.m., when she called 911 to report a domestic disturbance with her son, and six minutes later when officers Scuillo and Mayhle arrived.

"Did she become more of a threat to police?" she said.

Ms. Middleman also suggested that, through no fault of their own, the SWAT team compromised evidence when it went into the house to arrest Mr. Poplawski, and officers who testified during the trial were understandably emotional, which could have colored their testimonies.

"You should scrutinize the evidence in this case...If you don't know what the truth is, you cannot convict."

There were about 35 Pittsburgh police officers in uniform, as well as a K-9 officer, in the courtroom for overflow observers where a video feed of the trial is being shown.

The prosecution is now making its closing argument.

The fate of Richard Poplawski could go to the jury later today after the defense opened this morning with a surprise twist and called no witnesses despite indicating previously it would present a half-day's worth of testimony.

Instead, defense attorney Lisa Middleman admitted exhibits into evidence and then rested without calling a single witness in the capital case. By contrast, the prosecution, which rested Friday, presented 41 witnesses over five days in its effort to show Mr. Poplawski killed three Pittsburgh police officers and wounded a fourth on April 4, 2009, at his Stanton Heights home.

Ms. Middleman admitted into evidence 19 photographs of the crime scene, which jurors passed among each other. The images she showed the jury were of various aspects of the crime scene, including a bloody bootprint, a picture of a SWAT armored vehicle parked over a pool of blood at the front of the home and several pictures of a food stockpile Mr. Poplawski kept in the house.

It's unclear how Ms. Middleman might use the images in her arguments.

Judge Jeffrey A. Manning called Mr. Poplawski forward and told him it was his right to call character witnesses on his behalf. He said he understood. The judge asked him whether he was on any drugs that would influence his decision, and he replied that he was not.

Closing arguments in the trial, which began Monday, are slated to begin at 11:45 a.m when the jury returns from a recess. Jurors will begin deliberating after instructions from Judge Manning.

Should the jurors, who are from Dauphin County, return a first-degree murder conviction, the trial would then move into the penalty phase in which the panel must decide whether Mr. Poplawski should be sentenced to death.

Officers Paul J. Scuillo II, Stephen J. Mayle and Eric G. Kelly were killed when they responded to the Poplawski home at 1016 Fairfield St. for a domestic call from Mr. Poplawski's mother.The gallery was packed with members of both the officers' families and Mr. Poplawski's. He made no eye contact with them as sheriff's deputies escorted him from the courtroom.

More details in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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