By Joseph A. Slobodzian
PHILADELPHIA — North Philadelphia cabbie Aaron Savage did not know Philadelphia Police Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski, but the veteran officer's death affected him profoundly.
It could have been him.
Less than 24 hours before Liczbinski, 39, was shot to death on May 3, 2008, the self-described "gypsy hack" stopped for three people at Broad Street and Allegheny Avenue, near Temple University Hospital.
Savage told a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court jury Tuesday that the pickup seemed like a safe-and-easy $5: "two sisters" covered in Muslim garb and an older man asking for a lift to Sixth Street and Allegheny.
In less than a block, Savage said, one "woman" pressed a snub-nosed .38 caliber revolver into his side and threatened to kill him.
A few blocks later, after being forced into his Jeep Liberty's cargo area with a gun barrel pressed to his forehead, Savage said he managed to bolt, ducking into a North Philadelphia house while his captors fled in his car.
"I made my peace with my God," Savage testified. "But that was not my day."
The next day, a call came from homicide detectives: Three suspects, two dressed as Muslim women, had used Savage's Jeep as the getaway car in a Port Richmond bank robbery. A police officer who pursued them was dead.
Savage, who wept several times as he recounted his carjacking, said the incident left him with post-traumatic stress disorder and contributed to the breakup of his marriage.
"It messed me up," Savage added.
Savage was among the first witnesses called by a city prosecutor to testify in the trial of Eric DeShann Floyd, 35, of North Philadelphia, and Levon T. Warner, 41, of West Philadelphia, charged with murder in Liczbinski's death.
Savage's testimony and that of Anthony Brown, a March 31, 2008 home-invasion victim, were not directly linked to the robbery at a Bank of America branch inside a ShopRite supermarket at Aramingo and Castor Avenues. And Warner was not involved in either earlier incident.
But Floyd and his friend Howard Cain, 33, were. Assistant District Attorney Jude Conroy told the jury in his opening statement that the earlier crimes showed that Cain planned and prepared for the bank robbery.
And for that reason, Conroy said, his evidence would prove that Floyd and Warner were equally guilty of first-degree murder in Liczbinski's death though neither pulled the trigger.
"They were all on the same wavelength. They shared a specific intent to kill," Conroy said in his opening statement.
Cain, Floyd's and Warner's accomplice, actually fired the shots into the pursuing officer in a showdown at Almond and Schiller Streets in Port Richmond.
But Conroy noted that Warner handed the Chinese SKS assault rifle to Cain from the rear seat of their getaway car and that Floyd carried the weapon, hidden in a box, during the bank robbery.
Conroy delivered his 90-minute opening speech before a packed courtroom that included Michele Liczbinski, widow of the 12-year veteran officer, their three children, District Attorney Seth Williams, and Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey.
Several members of the Liczbinski family left the courtroom as Conroy described how Cain - later killed while fleeing from police - pumped eight shots into Liczbinski from the 35-shot weapon, the last two at close range.
Conroy said Liczbinski's last words to an officer responding to the scene were, "Tell my wife -"
On the other side of the courtroom sat Warner's mother, Dolores, and other relatives. Dolores Warner was equally emotional as her son, a 6-foot-4 former aspiring heavyweight boxer, sat rigidly in his chair a few feet away.
Attorneys for Floyd and Warner apologized to the Liczbinski family in their opening statements and candidly admitted their clients' roles in the bank robbery that day.
But both also insisted that neither should be found guilty of first-degree murder - which carries a penalty of death by lethal injection or life in prison without parole - because Cain was the shooter.
Defense attorney Earl G. Kauffman asked the jury to convict Floyd of second-degree murder - a killing during a serious felony - which carries a mandatory life prison sentence but not the possibility of execution.
"Eric Floyd never shoots anybody," Kauffman told the jury. "I'm not saying these are not violent activities, but I am saying that he never crosses the line. He never has a specific intent to kill."
Warner's attorney, Gary S. Server, said his client "hopped on board a foolish robbery attempt" but did not intend to kill Liczbinski.
In his opening, Conroy said Warner was recruited by Cain for "something really sweet" at the last minute after Cain's uncle, Mitchell Cain, balked at the bank robbery plan.
Floyd was not physically present in court. He was barred from court in the first week of jury selection when he interrupted questioning of prospective jurors and then punched attorney William L. Bowe after the judge refused to let Floyd represent himself.
Instead, Floyd watched trial proceedings on closed-circuit television in a holding cell adjacent to the courtroom. Judge Renee Caldwell Hughes told jurors Floyd exercised his constitutional right not to be present. His photo was projected on several large flat-screen televisions around the courtroom.
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