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Governor signs execution warrant for killer of Apollo policeman

| Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, 5:55 p.m.
Michael J. Travaglia is shown in this 2005 file photo.

Two death penalty experts say it's doubtful that “kill for thrill” murderer Michael Travaglia will be executed in April in accordance with a death warrant signed Thursday.

“I think it's quite unlikely,” said Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has done extensive research on death penalty trends nationwide. He previously was the head of Penn State University's political science department.

“Pennsylvania and California have the most ‘wacky' systems where there are lots of people on death row, and there have been no executions.”

This is the second execution warrant for Travaglia that Gov. Tom Corbett has signed in less than six months.

The execution is set for April 25.

Travaglia, now 54, formerly of Washington Township, and his co-defendant, John Lesko, were convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy for killing Apollo Police Officer Leonard Clifford Miller on Jan. 3, 1980 just over the Westmoreland County line.

Following numerous federal appeals, Travaglia was given a new sentencing hearing in 2005 and was again sentenced to death. The Supreme Court upheld the sentence.

“It would be unusual for an appeal in a death penalty case to be completed (including appeals) in less than eight years,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a national non-profit.

Gov. Corbett issued an earlier execution warrant for Travaglia last July, but a federal court issued a stay pending completion of the appeal process.

In January, the federal court dismissed the appeal, lifting the stay. Court records show the federal court did so because Travaglia in December filed to seek relief in state court under the Pennsylvania Post-Conviction Relief Act, which is an appeal method used to challenge issues not previously raised in court.

Officer Miller's death was the last in a series of crimes committed by Travaglia and Lesko. The pair killed three people in six days.

Travaglia pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and conspiracy for two of the killings and pleaded guilty to second-degree and conspiracy murder for the third.

In September 2011, Corbett also signed an execution warrant for Lesko, now 54, formerly of Pittsburgh's Lincoln Place neighborhood.

Lesko's execution was stayed by a federal court judge pending appeal.

Both men are incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford.

Dieter, of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the issuance of multiple death warrants is not unusual.

“Some of the warrants that are signed are at the end of the state appeal and those are unlikely to be carried out,” he said. “Some warrants are then signed at the end of the federal appeal, the last stage of appeal.

“This may still have some time ahead of it.”

In September, Pennsylvania was five days away from its first execution in more than a decade.

But a Philadelphia judge stayed the execution, saying prosecutors withheld evidence that showed a mitigating factor never heard by the jury.

Pennsylvania has about 200 people on death row.

The state has not carried out an execution since 1999.

Three people, all who waived their rights to appeal, have been put to death in Pennsylvania since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment.

Three executions in the last three decades is the average across all 50 states, Washington, D.C., the federal government and the military, said Baumgartner, the political science professor.

Death row inmates in Pennsylvania are much more likely to die in prison than to be executed. Since 1985, 24 death row inmates have died of natural causes and three committed suicide, according to the state Department of Corrections.

“It's a very symbolic penalty, and when the numbers are that low it really strains the concept of equal justice,” Baumgartner said.

“What was different about those three people (put to death) compared to all those on death row now?”

Jodi Weigand is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4702 or jweigand@tribweb.com.

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