Poplawski is sentenced to death; police clap for jury

Jurors say it was clear what they had to do

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Richard Poplawski, who was found guilty of ambushing three Pittsburgh police officers as they arrived at his Stanton Heights home for a simple domestic dispute, should be put to death.

That was the decision tonight of the jury of five women and seven men who weighed the evidence against the 24-year-old during this week's penalty phase of his capital murder trial and chose to impose three death sentences.

After deliberating for about two hours, the jurors told the judge they had a verdict. The courthouse hallway near the courtroom was cleared. Pittsburgh and suburban officers streamed into the courthouse, bounding up the stairs.

At 6:59 p.m. the verdict came: Mr. Poplawski should die by lethal injection for the April 4, 2009, shooting deaths of Paul J. Sciullo II, Stephen J. Mayhle and Eric G. Kelly.

In the auxiliary courtroom where a video feed of proceedings was played, dozens of police officers were waiting for the verdict. Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning had warned against any outbursts; after the verdict was read, though, some nodded their heads in assent and a few murmured "yes," in approval.

There was no visible reaction in the courtroom from the defendant or his family.

Officer Kelly's widow was the only person among the victims' families to react. She dropped her head, crying silently. The families of Officers Sciullo and Mayhle held hand across the front row.

The courtroom was packed, including about 30 uniformed city officers. Three members of Mr. Poplawski's family sat in the front row behind the defendant. They had no reaction, and quickly left the courtroom after Judge Manning formally pronounced the sentence of death.

As Mr. Poplawski was led from the courtroom, he was escorted by sheriff's deputies around the entire perimeter of the third floor of the courthouse, which was lined by more than 100 police officers.

The promenade and demonstration of force was clearly an organized effort. As Mr. Poplawski passed by the officers, their heads turned to follow him as he made his way down the hallway.

The officers also cheered as the jurors left the courtroom and again for Judge Manning and then held a moment of silence.

Deputy city police Chief Paul Donaldson said it was a verdict that police had hoped for, but one that didn't erase their grief.

He said the police bureau's attention now turns to the officers' families, "who bear a special burden we do not understand."

District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. thanked those families, saying in a statement they "handled the trial with a quiet dignity." He also thanked the jury from Dauphin County, which had found Mr. Poplawski guilty on Saturday following a weeklong trial.

Of the officers, Mr. Zappala said, "Their actions on April 4, 2009, were nothing short of extraordinary and this community will forever remember their sacrifice. It is often said that in God's mansion there are many rooms and I have no doubt that each of them occupies one."

Mr. Poplawski's attorney indicated that his client would be filing an appeal and Judge Manning said he had 120 days to do so. The judge also set a formal sentencing date of Sept. 6 for the remaining charges on which Mr. Poplawski was convicted.

Afterwards, at their Downtown hotel, a few jurors agreed to speak on condition they be identified only by their places in the jury box.

Juror 9, a man with watery eyes, said, "What I saw was such a senseless waste of human life. And I have to commend the D.A., because he laid out things for us ... There was no reasonable doubt."

He added, "It was plain to see we came to the right decision."

He said of the testimony by an officer who took Mr. Poplawski's confession and showed his notes to the defendant, " . . . that was the moment for me. That the defendant made corrections, and additions to the notes."

The jury foreman, also a man, said, "I think the facts and the evidence were pretty clear as to what needed to occur." He added that "once all of the evidence was in, it was unanimous and fairly quick."

Juror 3 pointed out that today's testimony by defense witnesses stopped with descriptions of Mr. Poplawski as a youth.

"For me there was a missing space between his high school years and what happened in this incident on April 4th. ... I don't know what changed in him, he said."

The jury's decision followed a full morning of testimony today from those defense witnesses.

A variety of family members spoke about what defense attorney William Brennan called an "obscene" family dynamic. They described Mr. Poplawski's abusive grandfather, as well as a complete lack of affection from his mother, Margaret Poplawski.

"I've never seen her kiss him or put her arms around him and hug him or show him any kind of affection," testified his great-aunt, Joanne Duffy.

The last defense witness was Mr. Poplawski's grandmother, Catherine Scott, whom he called "Cuckie." She told the jury her husband had a penchant for guns, hated most people and once was accused of raping her sister.

As soon as Ms. Scott concluded her testimony -- with the jury out of the courtroom -- Mr. Poplawski attempted to apologize.

Judge Manning had just asked the defendant if he agreed to waive his right to testify. Mr. Poplawski paused for several seconds before answering.

Then he replied, "I would like to apologize ... " before his attorneys swarmed around him to make him stop talking.

When they were done conferring, Mr. Poplawski told the court that he did not wish to speak.

The jury, which was selected in Dauphin County and brought here because of extensive pre-trial publicity, began deliberations about 4:15, at the conclusion of closing arguments.

Mr. Tranquilli spoke for nearly an hour-and-a-half, reminding the jurors that they were not there to pass judgment on the state statute that permits the death penalty, but on Mr. Poplawski himself.

"A decision in this case is not right or wrong," he said. "It's not a moral question. It's a just decision.

"What does he deserve? Not based upon his life, but based upon what he did."

But defense attorney William Brennan asked the jury to sift the emotional testimony it heard from the victims' families out of the facts of the case.

"If it comes down to you comparing those three [officers] to this guy sitting over here, I might as well just go sit down," Mr. Brennan said. "You don't weigh good people versus bad.

"These gentlemen, who were so good, got that way from the love and respect they got from their parents."

In contrast, Mr. Brennan focused his closing in part on what he characterized as Mr. Poplawski's dysfunctional family, calling the family dynamic "obscene."

"My God. What kind of a family is this?" he asked. "Am I saying it's an excuse? No. But you want to know what it is? It's a fact."

More details in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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