Convicted cop killer Rahmael Holt sentenced to death
A Westmoreland County jury sentenced convicted cop killer Rahmael Holt to death after deliberating for less than three hours Thursday afternoon.
The same jury on Tuesday convicted Holt, 31, of shooting and killing New Kensington police Officer Brian Shaw after an attempted traffic stop two years ago.
“One year, 11 months and 24 days is what it took for justice to be served,” said Shaw’s brother, Steffan Shaw Jr. It will be two years on Sunday since Shaw was killed. “This doesn’t bring Brian back, but it brings us some closure and the ability to focus on nothing but healing.”
With his parents by his side, Steffan Shaw Jr. thanked President Judge Rita Hathaway, who presided over the trial; the jury; District Attorney John Peck and assistant District Attorney Jim Lazar; county detectives; and all the law enforcement personnel who helped in the investigation.
He also thanked witnesses who testified for the prosecution and their family, friends, fellow first responders and the community for their support.
“Brian may no longer be with us physically, but he is forever with us in spirit,” Steffan Shaw Jr. said. “He will forever be a guardian angel for all.”
The jury began deliberating whether to sentence Holt to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole just after noon Thursday. It reached its unanimous decision about 2:40 p.m., according to Hathaway’s office.
The jury forewoman delivered the sentence inside Hathaway’s courtroom around 3 p.m., and the jury of nine women and three men, plus three alternates, was dismissed shortly after.
The forewoman said the only aggravating circumstance in favor of a death sentence was that Shaw, 25, was a police officer killed in the line of duty. It was the only aggravating circumstance cited by the prosecution, and was not disputed by Holt’s defense.
She said the jury considered three mitigating circumstances, including Holt’s lack of parental guidance growing up, the fact that he grew up in a high-crime environment and the violent death of his younger brother.
As he was throughout the trial, Holt said nothing and appeared to show little to no emotion as the sentence was handed down.
Holt did not testify during the guilt or penalty phases of his trial.
Peck said providing closure for Shaw’s family is the most important thing his office can do.
“We feel so sorry for the Shaw family. What a wonderful group of people they are,” Peck said. “They’ve been suffering daily for the last two years as a result of (Brian Shaw’s) death.
“Hopefully they can realize some measure of justice from the jury’s verdict, which we’re thankful for.”
Westmoreland County Det. Ray Dupilka said there’s no greater responsibility in law enforcement than investigating the death of a brother officer.
“I believe that the jury recognized these efforts and rendered a swift and just verdict,” Dupilka said in a statement after sentencing. “Nothing that we did during the previous two years will bring (Shaw) back to his family, friends or the community he served, but it did bring him justice — and for that I’m thankful.”
The prosecution and defense finished presenting witnesses and gave closing statements Thursday morning during the sentencing phase of Holt’s trial.
The defense called one witness, a pastor who knew Holt between the ages of 6 and 14. The Rev. Reholma McCants said Holt lived just a block from Unity Lutheran Community Mission in Homewood, and he saw him daily.
“He was my little right hand guy,” McCants said.
McCants remembered Holt as a well-behaved boy. He described Holt’s upbringing as “not one of the best” because of a lack of parenting, and that he was a product of the violent and drug-infested environment of Homewood.
Under cross examination, McCants described Holt as smart, and said he knew the difference between right and wrong.
McCants was one of only two witnesses to testify for the defense during the sentencing phase. Jean Dexheimer testified Wednesday that Holt had a troubled childhood.
Brian Shaw’s mother and brother read statements Wednesday for the prosecution, telling the jury of the pain and loss felt because of his death.
“I miss my son so much. I can’t even begin to describe the pain,” Lisa Shaw said, before directing her comments at Holt. “I will never forgive you for what you did to him.”
The jury had to be unanimous to impose the death penalty.
During closing statements Thursday, Peck portrayed Holt as a self-interested, cold-hearted and remorseless killer who traded Officer Brian Shaw’s life for four days of freedom.
Holt fired six shots at Shaw from close range as he ran from a traffic stop, jumping out of an SUV in which he was a passenger on Leishman Avenue that Friday night. Shaw was hit three times.
“It was with that gun on Nov. 17, 2017, the defendant showed his true character,” Peck said, referring to the date Brian Shaw was killed.
Defense attorney Tim Dawson said during his closing that one juror could decide the verdict and send Holt to prison for the rest of his life.
“We don’t live in a perfect world. People make stupid, reckless and tragic decisions,” Dawson said. “That doesn’t make them evil. That doesn’t mean they have to be killed.”
Dawson said the defense didn’t call Holt’s girlfriends or “street buddies” to testify for him, but two people who gave insight into him as a human being at an earlier age. He said he wasn’t asking jurors for sympathy for Holt, but to contrast his upbringing to Shaw’s.
“Brian Shaw was from a loving family,” he said. Holt “didn’t have good parents like the Shaws. He got clothes out of a bag. He got food from other people.”
Following the sentence, Dawson expressed disappointment that the jury handed down a death sentence. He noted that there is an automatic appeal to the state Supreme Court, as there is on all capital murder cases.
“I hope there’s some closure for the Shaw family with this verdict and they can move on with their lives,” Dawson said.
Dawson said the defense was pleased the jury considered the mitigating circumstances against imposing a death sentence.
“Ultimately, it wasn’t enough,” he said. “It didn’t outweigh the significant factor of the murder of a police officer and the very emotional victim impact testimony.”
Hathaway said she would schedule a formal sentencing hearing within 90 days.
Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, [email protected] or via Twitter .