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Trial delayed for man accused of killing Penn Hills police Officer

| Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, 12:33 p.m.

Allegheny County prosecutors said on Monday they cannot find a key witness against a man accused of gunning down a Penn Hills police officer and another man nearly three years ago, prompting the sixth postponement of the trial.

Deputy District Attorney Mark V. Tranquilli asked Common Pleas Judge Kevin G. Sasinoski to reschedule the trial of Ronald Robinson, 35, of Homewood because he could not locate the witness, whom he declined to identify.

“Any time you have a death-penalty case, you cannot afford to have an empty chair,” Tranquilli said. “It would be like going into battle with one boot on.”

Veronica Brestensky, Robinson's court-appointed defense attorney, said she is ready for trial and it could begin before Jan. 28 if prosecutors find the witness. Robinson remains behind bars, awaiting trial on homicide and related charges in the Dec. 9, 2009, slayings of Officer Michael Crawshaw, 32, and Danyal Morton, 40, of Penn Hills.

Crawshaw's family did not return calls for comment. Penn Hills police referred calls to county police, who declined comment.

Tranquilli said he does not think the case is in jeopardy.

“The fact that the prosecutor said he was all ready to go, then that likely means this witness was at least important enough to delay the trial,” said David Harris, a criminal law professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

The only known eyewitness to the crime is Lamar Jay, who lived with Morton. He identified Robinson as the man who entered the house and went upstairs to confront Morton. Jay testified he heard several gunshots before finding his roommate's body.

Police said Robinson killed Morton over a $500 drug debt and then fired an AK-47 automatic rifle at Crawshaw, the first officer to arrive at the scene, striking him several times as he sat in his patrol car.

It is not clear whether Jay is the witness Tranquilli seeks.

Tranquilli said he has had “intermittent” contact with the witness, who “expressed a fear of testifying.”

Sasinoski issued a warrant last month compelling the witness to appear in court. Officials declined to make available a copy of the warrant.

Duquesne University law professor Wesley Oliver, director of the school's criminal justice program, said the witness will have to explain his absence.

The judge can place the witness on house arrest or in jail until trial.

Another complication facing prosecutors is the absence of county homicide Detective Lawrence Carpico, the lead investigator in the case who died last year.

Legal experts said prosecutors could overcome Carpico's missing testimony. They have a transcript of Robinson's admission of the crime, and another officer could corroborate Carpico's statements.

“With detectives, a lot of times information they have can be transferred to someone else or there's another way to get it,” Oliver said.

Witness testimony can be more difficult to replace.

Even if the witness appears in court, it's possible he or she could feel threatened and answer “I don't remember” to any questions, Harris said.

“Sometimes cases fail for lack of witnesses, or witnesses die, they get old, they can't remember or they change their stories. It's been three years. Things happen over time,” he said.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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