The Allegheny County district attorney said Tuesday he will not pursue the death penalty against a 22-year-old charged with killing his fellow armored car driver and making off with $2.3 million in cash.
If convicted of first-degree murder for killing Michael Haines in February, Kenneth Konias Jr. of Dravosburg would have been eligible for the death penalty. But District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. announced he would not pursue a capital case, in large part because Mr. Haines' family said it did not want to endure the lengthy process of a capital case.
"We discussed at length as a family and with Mr. Zappala's office the ramifications of a death penalty trial," the family said in a statement. "Our desires were voiced in favor of avoiding the extensive trial period involved in such a pursuit, and diminishing the degree of prolonged stress on our family."
Prosecutors said Mr. Konias, who claimed he was acting in self-defense, hatched the scheme to steal the money and then drove to Florida, where for 55 days he spent profusely on drugs and prostitutes before being arrested in April in Pompano Beach. At a preliminary hearing, police testified that Mr. Konias bore no signs of a struggle with Mr. Haines, 31, who was shot in the back of the head. His body was found beneath the 31st Street Bridge in the Strip District, in the truck the two had been operating for Garda Cash Logistics.
Mr. Zappala's spokesman Mike Manko said the family's wishes weighed heavily in the decision to not seek the death penalty for Mr. Konias. Mr. Manko said Mr. Zappala also conducted an "extensive review" of the case, but declined to provide further details.
But in an interview shortly after Mr. Konias' arrest, Mr. Zappala said it would be best for everyone involved to expedite the case.
"I have to talk to the Haines family, and they have to understand what the death penalty entails," Mr. Zappala said. "I think the community is better served by this guy disappearing as quickly as he can."
Attorneys said that taking the death penalty off the table often signals a plea agreement is in the works, though it was unclear if this was the case for Mr. Konias. He would spend the rest of his life in prison if he pleaded to first- or second-degree murder. Mr. Konias' attorney, Charles LoPresti, could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Zappala has sought the death penalty in 32 cases during his tenure. It has been imposed in 11 of them.
State law dictates defendants are eligible for the death penalty if "aggravating factors" are present, such as whether the slain is a police officer or was pregnant, or whether the murder took place during a felony.
But it's ultimately up to the district attorney to decide whether to proceed with a capital case.
In Washington County, District Attorney Eugene Vittone has sought the death penalty against two defendants now facing trial in his six-month tenure. In both of those cases, the family endorsed his decision to have the cases tried as capital cases.
Mr. Vittone said he reviews cases to see if they're death-penalty eligible and also speaks to the family to weigh their views. A victim's advocate also educates a family as to what the process might entail, warning them of the lengthy delays that could accompany a capital case. Asked if he would ever act contrary to a family's wishes, he said it would depend on the facts of the case.
"You want them to be aware of the fact that even if you reach the point when you get the verdict, there will be a lot of appeals and it will be a lot of time and it's going to be a lot of effort," he said. "It's going be a long time before you get finality."
Ultimately, said Mr. Vittone, "I like ... to be driven by the facts of the case."
Indeed, capital cases pose many more challenges for families than do non-death penalty cases. In capital cases, in addition to a trial, there is a special penalty phase, in which family members have the opportunity to testify about how the loss of their loved one has impacted them. The case is often rehashed.
Those on death row get automatic appeals to the state Supreme Court and occasionally appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Even when the family is no longer called to testify in hearings, media coverage of a case's developments can resurrect their grief. For a family already traumatized by loss, it can sometimes be a burden too much to bear.
"There's no closure," said defense attorney James Ecker, who has represented clients facing the death penalty. "We have people sitting on [death row] for 20 or 30 years. It goes on and on and on."
Richard Narvin, head of the county's office of conflict counsel, said he'd like to see more consistency in the DA's application of the death penalty.
He noted, for example, that Mr. Zappala sought the death penalty against William Page, convicted of molesting his 2-year-old daughter and leaving her in the cold to die, but not against Anthony Bush, currently on trial for beating his girlfriend's 9-year-old son to death.
Page's penalty phase ended with a hung jury. He is now serving life without parole.
"I've been unable to figure out why who gets it gets it," Mr. Narvin said. "When you're talking about people's lives, to me that is just an abnormal and inappropriate area of subjectivity.
"It's just another reason that the death penalty in and of itself is inappropriate and ineffective."
Moriah Balingit: email@example.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.