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Poplawski Trial: Penalty phase Day 1

| Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Richard Poplawski, 24, shot and killed three Pittsburgh police officers who responded to a domestic dispute at his Stanton Heights home on the morning of April 4, 2009. Officers Eric G. Kelly, 41, Stephen J. Mayhle, 29, and Paul J. Sciullo II, 36, died in the shootout.

The jury brought in from Dauphin County last week convicted Poplawski of 28 counts related to the shootings, including three counts of first-degree murder. Prosecutors have asked the jury to sentence Poplawski to death, and defense attorneys will argue that he deserves only life in prison without possibility of parole.

Tribune-Review staff writers Bobby Kerlik and Bob Bauder are providing updates from the Allegheny County Courthouse throughout the trial.

6:18 p.m.

Judge Manning has informed the media that the jury has reached a verdict.

4:34 pm.

Judge Jeffrey Manning has summoned the jury back to the courtroom to clarify one of the instructions of the law. After he clarifies his instructions, the jury will resume deliberations.

4:16 p.m.

Manning has finished his instructions to the jury and sent them into deliberations at about 4:13 p.m.

4:14 P.M.

Richard Poplawski's attorney, William Brennan, tried to save his client's life in a 20-minute closing argument.

"All 12 of you have an individual vote," Brennan said. "You have an awesome power — to take a life. You also have an awesome power to impose life without the possibility of parole. Put the emotional aspect aside."

Brennan told the jury he agreed that no one should have to go through what the officers and their families went through because of his client, but urged the jury to impartially evaluate the evidence.

"If the comparison is these three (officers) to this guy here (Poplawski), then I might as well walk away right now," Brennan said.

He argued that evidence of Poplawski's rough home life at the hands of an alcoholic grandfather is not an excuse but a fact they should consider.

"The race and hatred that was spewed — my God, what kind of family is that?" Brennan said. "The love and care of nurturing parents were totally absent from him."

Brennan described how Poplawski was a young man who became lost in a world related to Stormfront — where he viewed himself as a patriot who didn't trust the government.

"Is it an excuse• No, but the context is very important," Brennan said.

He told the jury that even with a sentence of life in prison, Poplawski "will be taken out of that prison in a wooden box."

3:58 p.m.

Laying out the badges of the three slain officers on the bar before the jury, Deputy District Attorney Mark V. Tranquilli urged the jury to give Richard Poplawski justice.

"There's only one just sentence. Richard Poplawski should forfeit his life for the crimes he has committed. You speak for all of us with the rendering of the sentence. Speak with one voice and speak to Richard Poplawski," Tranquilli said. "The only way there will be justice is if he pays the ultimate price."

Tranquilli's closing argument lasted a little over an hour and, at times, the longtime prosecutor was choked up in talking about the three dead officers. He tore into defense arguments that Richard Poplawski grew up in a rough home without a dad.

"Eric Kelly didn't have a father in his life. How did Eric Kelly overcome adversity in his life• He picked himself up, dusted himself off and moved on. You think Eric Kelly was lucky enough to have the IQ Richard Poplawski had• No, but he had good family values. He worked himself almost to exhaustion. He went to college. He went to the Marines and he stayed. He served his country. He was an MP. And then he met a girl."

Tranquilli said Poplawski used his IQ for evil and had been trending that way since 9th grade. Tranquilli argued that Poplawski learned his hateful ideas online on the Stormfront website, where Poplawski was a frequent poster.

"You kill a police officer, you're taking a shot at society itself," Tranquilli said. "It was not until Eric Kelly, Paul Sciullo and Stephen Mayhle are dead that they get the recognition they deserve.

"They get a big, fat 'thank you' from Allegheny County that none of these three guys ever get to hear."

Tranqilli said that a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole means Poplawski's family can visit him.

"Richard Poplawski wants to be able to talk to his mother, to see his friends. Should he be able to do that?" Tranquilli asked.

3:40 p.m.

Lawyers for both sides today finished their closing arguments to the jury over whether Richard Poplawski should be put to death.

Judge Jeffrey Manning will now give the jury the instructions on the law, and the jury will begin deliberations. All 12 jurors must agree to impose a death sentence, otherwise the sentence is life with no chance of parole.

1:49 p.m.

Poplawski's attorney Lisa Middleman said she could not comment about her client's abbreviated apology, which he uttered after the jury left the room before the lunch break.

Judge Manning noted that Poplawski has a right to make a statement on the record during sentencing, but if he does, then the prosecution can cross-examine him.

Poplawski began to apologize, but his attorneys quickly stopped and quietly talked to him, obviously concerned about exposing him to a cross-examination.

1:22 p.m.

Defense attorney William Brennan called his last witness and rested at 12:05 p.m.

Afterward, Deputy District Attorney Mark Tranquilli argued that he should be permitted to respond to one defense witness' testimony by playing a video showing Poplawski ranting and raving in his prison cell about killing more Pittsburgh police officers.

Tranquilli also asked Manning's permission to play a recording of Poplawski spouting racial epithets and saying he wanted to kill police.

Tranquilli wanted to use the evidence to answer testimony offered by Poplawski's great aunt, Debbie Devine, who recalled Margaret Poplawski once saying that she wanted to shoot police offiers.

"Once Pandora's box has opened, the evils have flown out and I should be allowed to counteract," Tranquilli said.

Manning at first denied Tranquilli's request, then told him he would consider it during the lunch break.

The trial is scheduled to resume at 1:30 p.m.

12:40 p.m.

Richard Poplawski informed Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Manning that he wished to issue an apology, but was quickly quieted by his defense team before he could elaborate.

Poplawski broke his silence on the eighth day of his trial — only the second time he has spoken during proceedings — when Manning asked if he wished to give a statement at sentencing.

"I'd like to apologize ... " Poplawski said, before attorneys Lisa Middleman and William Brennan hushed him.

After a short conference with his attorneys, Poplawski told Manning that he would waive his right to make a statement.

He answered, "No," when Manning asked if anyone forced him to make that decision or if he was under the influence of drugs.

Earlier, Pierre Niesen, Poplawski's homeroom teacher at North Catholic High School, testified that Poplawski was a bright and popular student in ninth and 10th grades. Poplawski left the school during his junior year.

"Richie entered as a little 110-pound kid, and he always had a big smile on him," Niesen said. "He was well-received by other students."

Recalling a "meet the teachers night," where parents came to the school to meet faculty, Niesen said Poplawski's grandmother attended and expressed concerns about Poplawski.

"I don't really know what she was worried about," he said, noting that Poplawski received very good grades as a freshman and sophomore.

Catherine Scott took the stand and confirmed her husband was abusive to her and their daughter, Margaret.

When Brennan asked why she never left him, she attributed it to her religious beliefs.

"I'm a Catholic and I took vows for better or worse," she said. "Nobody else seemed to want to be bothered with him."

She said her husband either suffered a stroke or injured his head in a bar fight when Poplawski was 10. As a result, she said, surgeons removed the left side of Charles Scott's brain.

She said she continued to love Poplawski — "with all my heart" — despite his murder conviction.

12:34 p.m.

Sister Mary John Cook, principal of Immaculate Conception school in Bloomfield, told the jury deciding the fate of her former student that he was a straight-A student.

"He was in our school six years. He was a very intelligent student. He had an IQ of 130-140," Cook testified during the defense portion of the penalty phase. "He was never in my office. He was never a problem. He worked hard and he offered to help other students. He never glorified that he was a good student."

Cook said Poplawski asked her to be his confirmation sponsor because no one else in his family was religious.

11:44 a.m.

Richard Poplawski's father told the jury deciding Poplawski's fate that he left his son's life at a young age because he and Margaret Poplawski had a rocky relationship. Poplawski was born about 7 to 9 months into the marriage, he said.

"I was married to (Margaret) 25 years ago. I guess the marriage lasted about 2 1/2, 3 years," Richard Poplawski, who has the same name as his son, testified. "Things didn't work out. It was just too much. Too much bickering, too much fighting."

Poplawski's father testified that Margaret Poplawski stabbed him on two occasions during fights.

Richard Poplawski, the defendant, rarely looked at his father while he was on the witness stand.

Defense attorney Bill Brennan asked Poplawski's father if Richard wanted to move in with him a few years before he killed three Pittsburgh police officers.

"Did he move in?" Brennan asked.

"No," he answered.

"Did you have your own family at that time from a different relationship?" Brennan asked. Poplawski's father said he had three children other than Richard.

Poplawski's father testified along with several other relatives, who detailed Poplawski's rough home life.

Many of Poplawski's aunts and a cousin talked about Poplawski's grandfather's penchant for beer and guns.

"Charles Scott (Poplawski's late grandfather) was very violent man. One Christmas he was shooting guns through the ceiling and the roof," said William Duffy, Poplawski's second cousin. "I can remember him pointing guns at people."

"Did he point guns at you?" Brennan asked.

"Yes, he did," Duffy said.

Another second cousin, Jean Mazurek, testified that Margaret Poplawski lived with her before. She talked about the problems between Margaret and her son and said Catherine Scott raised Richard much of the time. Richard called his grandmother "Cuckie."

"They do not have a close relationship," Mazurek testified. "It more or less Cuckie and him."

11:31 A.M.

Poplawski's mother, Margaret, is watching the proceedings via a closed-circuit feed in another courtroom.

She fidgets in her seat and mutters to herself, listening to witnesses talk about her suicide attempts and alcohol abuse. She became animated as her ex-husband, Richard A. Poplawski, testified about their fights, waving her arms in the air at one point.

She silently wept at the end of his testimony. She refused a box of tissues offered by a court officer.

Margaret Poplawski sighed and muttered as Tranquilli made occasional objections to what witnesses were saying.

"That Tranquilli's no good, sitting there and objecting to everything," she said during a court recess.

10:16 A.M.

Richard Poplawski's grandfather was a deadbeat alcoholic who beat his wife and other family members, a relative testified.

Debbie Devine, Poplawski's great aunt, was the first witness called today by attorney William Brennan, who is representing Poplawski during the penalty phase of his murder trial. Brennan intends to call eight or nine witnesses today who will present mitigating evidence in an attempt to gain a life sentence rather than the death penalty for Poplawski.

Devine said Charles Scott, the grandfather who lived in the same house as Poplawski, was a violent man. He worked for a short while in an auto body shop, then quit work and spent his days drinking up to two cases of beer per day, she said. He also maintained a cache of firearms in his home.

He beat his wife, Catherine Scott, and assaulted other relatives, including Devine, she said.

Devine said Margaret Poplawski grew up in that violent atmosphere and began sneaking out to drink at a young age. As she grew older, Devine said, Margaret was prone to violent outbursts. One Christmas Eve, she showed up at Devine's home and got into an argument with another relative. She pushed and spit in the relative's face, Devine said.

Testimony is expected to continue into the afternoon.

Photo Galleries

Poplawski Trial

Poplawski Trial

Richard Poplawski was found guilty of all charges in the slayings of three Pittsburgh police officers.

Poplawski childhood photos

Poplawski childhood photos

Childhood photos of Richard Poplawski, submitted as evidence during the trial.

Police photos

Police photos

Photos from slain officers' families.

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