Man accused of killing Penn Hills police officer on life support

| Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012, 11:10 a.m.

Guards found a Homewood man unresponsive in his jail cell just hours before lawyers were supposed to begin picking a jury to hear his capital trial on charges he fatally shot a Penn Hills police officer and another man, his attorney said Tuesday.

Ronald Robinson, 35, was on life support at UPMC Mercy, Uptown, as doctors tried to determine what happened.

Guards at the Allegheny County Jail found Robinson at 4:30 a.m., said Veronica Brestensky, who spent time with Robinson's family at the hospital.

Brestensky said she heard conflicting reports as to whether guards found Robinson on the floor or elsewhere inside his cell. Robinson was being held in a jail pod with other homicide suspects, Brestensky said. She did not know if he was under special monitoring.

“The frustrating part is that nobody has any answers,” Brestensky said.

County spokesman Kevin Evanto said officials would not discuss the medical condition of inmates.

“We are continuing to gather information and will provide comments or updates as appropriate,” he said.

Brestensky said there were no indications that Robinson tried to commit suicide. She said blood tests came back negative for drugs.

Warden Orlando Harper declined comment.

Jury selection was scheduled to begin Tuesday for Robinson. He is accused of killing Danyal Morton, 40, of Penn Hills and Officer Michael Crawshaw, 32, on Dec. 6, 2009. Police said Robinson killed Morton over a $500 drug debt and upon exiting the house fired at Crawshaw — the first officer to respond to the shooting — striking him several times as he sat in his patrol car.

The District Attorney's Office is seeking the death penalty. Deputy District Attorney Mark V. Tranquilli declined to comment on Robinson's condition or the circumstances surrounding the discovery of his body.

Tranquilli said attorneys will pick a new trial date on Wednesday depending on Robinson's health.

Opening statements were scheduled to begin on Nov. 27.

Robinson's health is only the most recent complication in the case. Over the past three years, a judge postponed the case multiple times at the request of the defense; the lead investigator on the case, county homicide Detective Lawrence Carpico, died in 2011; and last month the prosecution requested a delay because the lone witness in the case was afraid to testify.

Patrick K. Nightingale, a criminal defense attorney who served for six years as an assistant district attorney, said that as a prosecutor he always wanted to have the most amount of information when preparing for a case.

“The one thing I would tell victims' families is, ‘Don't be surprised if there's a continuance,'” said Nightingale, who is not involved in the case. “The one thing we don't want to have to do is to have to try this case twice.”

A delay on the day of the trial is very unusual, he said.

“It's a case where the defense has been preparing for it, the prosecution is working with the defendant, everybody's working long hours building up to the start,”

Nightingale said. “But if the guy had a heart attack and went to the hospital, that's nothing anyone has any control over.”

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

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