Jury begins deliberations in slaying of Penn Hills officer

| Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, 1:02 p.m.

The Allegheny County jury deciding the fate of a Homewood man accused of fatally shooting a Penn Hills police officer and another man deliberated about five hours Monday without a verdict.

The jury began deliberations in the case against Ronald Robinson, 35, about 1:30 p.m. after closing arguments by defense attorney Veronica Brestensky and Deputy District Attorney Mark V. Tranquilli.

Prosecutors said Robinson killed Danyal Morton, 40, in the bathroom of his Penn Hills home over a drug debt on Dec. 6, 2009, and as he fled sprayed Officer Michael Crawshaw's police car with shots from an AK-47 semiautomatic assault rifle, striking the officer in the head and the left arm.

About 3 p.m., the jury asked Common Pleas Judge Kevin G. Sasinoski to replay Morton's 911 call and to inspect the rifle prosecutors said Robinson used to commit the murders.

University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said he hadn't “the slightest idea” why the jury would want to inspect the murder weapon, but said the jury's request to replay the 911 tape and the longer-than-expected deliberations were signs they were paying attention and taking their job seriously.

“I would have assumed a relatively quick verdict, but I would have assumed wrong,” Burkoff said. “But it's good that they're not just jumping to a verdict.”

Jurors resume deliberations at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

During closing arguments, Brestensky — as she has since the trial began Jan. 3 — conceded her client killed both men, but reiterated her belief that the jury should find Robinson guilty of second-degree murder rather than first-degree murder. A first-degree murder conviction would make Robinson eligible for the death penalty.

“This isn't a whodunit,” she told the jury. “It's a what-did-he-do-under-the-law.”

Brestensky said Robinson did not call police and lie in wait for them, as convicted cop killer Richard Poplawski did. Poplawski fatally shot three Pittsburgh police officers in Stanton Heights on April 4, 2009, and was sentenced to death in June 2011.

Instead, Brestensky called Robinson‘s encounter with Crawshaw a “happenstance occurrence.”

“It might have been one of the most unlucky shots in Allegheny County,” she said.

Tranquilli rebuffed Brestensky's arguments, telling the jury that Robinson had a specific intent to kill Morton, reminding them of Robinson's conversation with a friend a day before the shooting in which he said he was going to “get at” Morton, who was dodging him over a $500 drug debt.

“You don‘t shoot a person four times in the chest with an AK-47 without intending to kill them,” he said. “An AK-47 is built to kill and it's built to kill people.”

Crawshaw, Tranquilli said, “never stood a chance” against Robinson, who he said had the choice of running or opening fire on a marked police car.

Tranquilli slapped nine bullet casings police recovered from the scene onto the banister separating himself from the jury and counted to 12 — the number of shots criminologists estimated Robinson fired into Crawshaw's police cruiser.

“Somewhere along that deadly continuum, he formed the specific intent to kill,” Tranquilli said. “Not only did he decide not to run, he decided to move up to get a better vantage point.”

If Robinson is convicted of first-degree murder, the trial will move into the penalty phase, during which the defense and prosecution will present additional testimony, and the jury will then decide whether Robinson should be put to death.

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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