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Jury puts Travaglia back on death row

| Tuesday, May 8, 2012, 1:06 a.m.

Michael J. Travaglia's attorneys argued their client is a changed man, but a jury decided that his punishment for murdering a police officer at the end of the eight-day "kill-for-thrill" rampage 25 years ago must remain the same.

Travaglia, 46, formerly of Washington Township, was sentenced to death by lethal injection on Tuesday, the second day of deliberations. Having won an appeal of the death sentence ordered in 1981, Travaglia has been in court fighting for his life since earlier this month.

The nine-woman, three-man panel weighed the case for about three hours yesterday before announcing the decision shortly past noon. The jurors also had worked about three hours on Monday before Westmoreland County Judge John E. Blahovec allowed them to go home for the evening.

It's been more than two decades since jurors decided that Travaglia and codefendant John C. Lesko should be executed for killing Apollo police Officer Leonard C. Miller, who had pulled the men over in January 1980.

Travaglia and Lesko were in a stolen vehicle. They'd dumped the owner's body in an Indiana County lake.

As Miller approached the car, Travaglia shot the 21-year-old patrolman twice, in the shoulder and in the abdomen.

District Attorney John Peck told jurors that Travaglia drove away, caring as much for Miller as he would for a dog. Within seconds, Peck said, Miller was dead.

Since that time, Travaglia's hair has turned gray and he's developed a bald spot. His court-appointed lawyer, Ned Nakles Jr., told the jury that prison multiplies the years on a man's life, but he argued that Travaglia managed to use the time to rebuild his character and find religion.

"I've seen a side of him that most people don't know," Nakles said.

Travaglia declined to comment to a crowd of reporters waiting near the sheriff's department cruiser that took him back to the county prison, just a stop on his return trip to death row at the state prison in Greene County.

Nakles said Travaglia has grown to accept the executioner's needle as a possible fate but will continue fighting until all appeals are exhausted.

Peck said the appeals process may take several years. The appeal that led to the recent resentencing hearing was granted in 1996.

In addition to shooting Miller to death, Travaglia and Lesko killed three other people: Peter Levato, 49, a former security guard from Pittsburgh; Marlene Sue Newcomer, 26, a seamstress from Leisenring, Fayette County; and William Nicholls, 32, a church organist from Mt. Lebanon, Allegheny County.

Nakles said amphetamine abuse contributed heavily to Travaglia's crimes.

Miller's death was the only case that carried the death penalty. In a death penalty case, the empaneled men and women who decide whether a defendant is guilty are instructed to begin a second round of deliberations if they decide on a verdict of first-degree murder. During that time, the jurors weigh circumstances provided by lawyers on both sides as to whether the death penalty is warranted.

If the case isn't strong enough for execution, a mandatory life sentence is the only other option.

A federal appeals court ruled that the jury deliberating the case in 1981 should not have been told that Travaglia had pleaded guilty in Indiana County to Nicholls' murder. Though the other victims of the killing spree were described at points during the resentencing hearing, prosecutors were limited to basing their argument for Travaglia's execution on Miller's death.

Lesko, who also won an appeal, was again sentenced to death in 1995.

Blahovec's courtroom remained silent as the jury foreperson read the decision yesterday. Travaglia's expression did not change. His wife, Frances Andrasy, began to cry as sheriff's deputies put shackles on the man she met, and married, while he was a death row inmate.

Andrasy, 58, a retired hairdresser who now works as a caregiver for a woman with Parkinson's disease, began writing Travaglia in 1990 after reading letters he had sent a member of her church.

A minister began reading to her from a Bible as she wept on the courtroom bench. She and others had been praying for Travaglia as the jury finished deliberations.

"Don't give up," Nakles whispered to her, trying to comfort her after the verdict.

She declined to take reporters' questions.

Public Defender Dante Bertani said he was disappointed in the decision to leave Travaglia on death row.

"I thought we had a jury that was going to really understand that the Mike Travaglia today and the Mike Travaglia back in '79 and '80 are two different people," he said.

Peck disagreed that Travaglia's life should be spared.

"I can't dispute that he may have found God," Peck said. "I don't think that was enough to overcome the enormity of these crimes."

Capital punishment in Pennsylvania

Since 1978, when Pennsylvania reinstated capital punishment, only two defendants in Westmoreland County have been sentenced to death -- Michael J. Travaglia and John C. Lesko. Both death-penalty cases resulted from their eight-day "kill-for-thrill" spree in 1979 and 1980 for which Travaglia and Lesko were convicted of killing four people in two counties.

The death penalty in Pennsylvania may be applied only in cases where a defendant is found guilty of first-degree murder. A separate hearing is held for the consideration of aggravating and mitigating circumstances.

  • In 1834, Pennsylvania became the first state in the union to abolish public hangings, a practice that began in the late 1600s. For the next eight decades, each county was responsible for carrying out its own "private hangings" at that county's jail.

  • Punishment by electrocution was authorized by legislation in 1913, and the responsibility for executing capital cases was passed on to the state. The Western Penitentiary in Centre County, now the State Correctional Institution at Rockview, was selected as the location for the state's electric chair.

  • Between 1915 and 1962, 350 people were executed in the chair, two of whom were women.

  • On April 2, 1962, Elmo Smith was executed for the rape and slaying of a woman in Montgomery County. He was the last person to be executed in the electric chair.

  • In November 1990, Gov. Robert Casey signed legislation that changed Pennsylvania's method of capital punishment from electrocution to lethal injection.

  • On May 2, 1995, Keith Zettlemoyer became the first person in Pennsylvania to be executed by lethal injection. Zettlemoyer was executed for murdering his friend, Charles DeVetsco, who was planning to testify against him in a robbery trial.

  • The last person executed in the state was Gary Heidnik, on July 6, 1999, by lethal injection. He was convicted and given two death sentences in July 1988 for murdering two women he had imprisoned in his home.

  • There are 223 people on death row in Pennsylvania, 217 men and six women.

    Source: Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

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