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Poplawski found guilty in killing of 3 Pa. officers

Prosecutors will aim for the death penalty following guilty verdict on 28 charges, including first-degree murder

By Bobby Kerlik and Bob Bauder
Pittsburgh Tribune Review

PITTSBURGH, Penn. — Allegheny County prosecutors will argue that Richard Poplawski should be put to death now that a jury convicted him on Saturday of three counts of first-degree murder for fatally shooting three Pittsburgh police officers.

Poplawski, 24, showed little emotion and looked at the jury as the foreman announced his guilt on 28 charges. The verdict sent a buzz through the Allegheny County Courthouse, which usually is closed on weekends but was packed with more than 50 police officers yesterday.

"He had to face his accusers. We are pleased with the decision of the jury," said Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson. "We are happy that they have officially recognized Richard Poplawski for the deaths of Paul Sciullo, Stephen Mayhle and Eric Kelly."

The Dauphin County jury of seven men and five women, brought in to hear the case because of intense publicity, deliberated fewer than four hours before delivering the guilty verdict at 8:20 p.m. on Day 6 of the trial. Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning said the penalty phase would start Monday.

"Our work continues. Monday we start anew, and hopefully we'll provide this jury with all the information they need in this case to arrive at a just result," said Deputy District Attorney Mark V. Tranquilli.

He will ask the jury to put Poplawski on death row for killing Kelly, Mayhle and Sciullo on April 4, 2009, after they responded to a domestic violence call at Poplawski's home in Stanton Heights. The penalty phase is expected to last several days.

Defense attorney Lisa Middleman, who surprised the courtroom earlier in the day by resting her case without any testimony, said she was not surprised at the verdict.

"I think the jury worked very hard to come to this decision, one they obviously felt was appropriate based on the evidence," Middleman said. "To ask a jury to render a verdict other than first-degree murder when the victims are three police officers would have been an unreasonable expectation."

Families of the officers declined comment. Many family members held hands in court as the verdict was read.

"On behalf of Pittsburgh residents, I want to express my gratitude to the jury for their steadfast decision and for ultimately ruling on the right side of justice," Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said in a statement. "This case is not over yet, and the jury must see this case through so that justice will be done on behalf of our fallen heroes, their families, and us all."

Dan O'Hara, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, said his only surprise was that the guilt phase of the trial wrapped up so quickly.

"It offers some closure for the families and for the officers," he said of the verdicts. "There's no question that we think the death penalty is something that is appropriate in this case. I don't think there was ever a question that he did it. It's just a matter of what happens during the penalty phase. We feel very strongly that a person like that can never be rehabilitated."

Poplawski's mother, Margaret, and his grandmother, Catherine Scott, quickly left the courthouse after Manning ejected Margaret from the courtroom. She stood up in court when her son stood to listen to the verdict. She was ordered to sit down. After the verdict, Manning ordered her out of the courtroom because he said he thought she was going to have an outburst.

Margaret Poplawski unleashed a string of profanities when asked for comment, and a police officer ordered her to leave the building because of her language.

"I just got kicked out of the building," she said. "These people are so ignorant."

After the verdict, two sheriff's deputies led Poplawski -- his legs chained and hands cuffed to his waist -- around the building's third floor past dozens of police officers in uniform and plainclothes lining a courthouse hall opposite the courtroom.

Poplawski said nothing, occasionally looking left or right at the silent officers, who stared back at him. Donaldson said the formation was a spontaneous reaction of the officers.

"It's the feeling that he (Poplawski) has to confront them," Donaldson said.

As soon as Poplawski passed, the same officers quickly formed lines for relatives of the slain police officers. As they passed, many in tears, they waved and exchanged hugs with the officers standing against the wall.

Earlier in the day, Middleman explained why she didn't call witnesses. Given the overwhelming evidence presented against her client, she told reporters, it would have been an "insult" to the jury to proceed.

"I did my job, which was to put them (prosecution witnesses) to the test," Middleman said, adding the best she could hope for was a life sentence for Poplawski.

In her closing statement to the jury, Middleman suggested Poplawski's mother -- who called 911 asking officers to remove her son the morning of the shootings -- could have been involved.

"Only two people, other than the people that died, know what happened in that house," Middleman said. "What can you infer from the fact that the prosecution did not call Margaret Poplawski in this case?

"I suggest the prosecution made a dangerous assumption " to treat Margaret Poplawski as a victim. "They didn't test her hands; they didn't seize her clothes. They did nothing to explore the possibility that she was involved in this incident."

Tranquilli called that ridiculous.

"What evidence do we have that Margaret Poplawski did anything to these police officers except call them?" he asked the jury, noting that only Richard Poplawski's blood was found on his weapons, and referring to the suspect's numerous confessions. "This is something merely to cause a distraction. Don't buy it."

Middleman conceded the prosecution had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that her client murdered Kelly and was guilty of most of the other 25 charges prosecutors filed following the 3 1/2-hour shootout and standoff. But she argued Poplawski did not intend to kill -- one of the key elements in first-degree murder -- and asked the jury to consider third-degree murder, which carries a lesser penalty.

Sciullo and Mayhle were the first to respond to the 7 a.m. call. Prosecutors say Poplawski killed Sciullo with a shotgun blast, got into a gun battle with Mayhle, then used an AK-47 to shoot Kelly when the off-duty officer arrived to back up his fellow officers after hearing a call for help on the radio.

Middleman also referenced "a mental illness component" for Poplawski, but said it wasn't enough for an insanity defense.

Tranquilli, in his closing, said the case was about choices and chances he had but did not take to stop the carnage on Fairfield Street.

Calling Poplawski a "coward who lays in wait for police officers," Tranquilli said the suspect chose to strap on weapons and a bulletproof vest and shoot the officers.

He said ballistic evidence indicated the officers were shot several times with Poplawski's weapons and that a neighbor testified he saw Poplawski shooting a prone Mayhle on the sidewalk. Another neighbor, he said, saw Poplawski shooting Kelly as the officer sat in his vehicle. Tests also indicated Poplawski shot Mayhle "in the back like a dog" as the officer left the residence.

Copyright 2011 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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