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'Kill for Thrill' perps longest on Pa. death row

Debra Erdley
| Saturday, Dec. 27, 2014, 10:30 p.m.
in this file photo from 2001, convicted murderer John Lesko is led in shackles by Westmoreland County sheriff's deputies from the Westmoreland County Courthouse in Greensburg.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
in this file photo from 2001, convicted murderer John Lesko is led in shackles by Westmoreland County sheriff's deputies from the Westmoreland County Courthouse in Greensburg.
Michael J. Travaglia is shown in this 2005 file photo.
Michael J. Travaglia is shown in this 2005 file photo.
“It’s frustrating,” says Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck, who has been involved with the 'Kill for Thrill' case for his entire career.
ERIC FELACK, VALLEY NEWS DISPATCH
“It’s frustrating,” says Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck, who has been involved with the 'Kill for Thrill' case for his entire career.
Apollo Officer Leonard Miller
Valley News Dispatch
Apollo Officer Leonard Miller

John Lesko lost none of his swagger when a jury sentenced him to death more than three decades ago.

“I have a better chance of getting hit by a car than I do of going to the electric chair,” the slight young man with a shock of dirty blond hair boasted as Westmoreland County sheriff's deputies led him away in shackles.

Thirty-five years after the four “Kill for Thrill Murders” rocked Western Pennsylvania during the December 1979 holiday season, authorities cannot prove Lesko wrong.

Lesko and co-defendant Michael J. Travaglia, both 56, have been on death row longer than any of the 185 Pennsylvania inmates sentenced to die for their crimes.

And as Gov.-elect Tom Wolf prepares to take office, chances are slim that either man will be executed anytime soon.

Spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said Wolf “knows that we need to hold people accountable for the crimes they commit, but he also knows that we need to address problems with our criminal justice system so that we do not risk executing an innocent person.”

He said Wolf will place a moratorium on the death penalty until these issues are properly addressed.

Many groups have criticized the system. Some claim that limited resources in capital cases — coupled with policies that allowed counties to appoint defense attorneys without considering their experience — have led to trial errors and lengthy appeals.

Those concerns aside, the numbers indicate the odds are on the side of Lesko and Travaglia.

In the years since the two were sentenced, 159 death row inmates had sentences reduced to life in prison; 14 were resentenced to lesser terms; nine had their sentences vacated; 29 died of natural causes; and three committed suicide.

In that time, only three death row inmates were executed — between 1995 and 1999 — on abandoning appeals.

The beginning

In 1979, fate united Travaglia, the troubled son of a Kiski Valley contractor, and Lesko, a homeless drifter who grew up in Pittsburgh.

As the year drew to an end, the two transient day workers embarked on a seemingly random, eight-day, drug-fueled murder spree that claimed the lives of Peter Levato, 49, an unemployed night watchman from Pittsburgh's North Side; Marlene Sue Newcomer, 26, of Leisenring, Fayette County, the widowed mother of a 6-year-old son; William Nicholls, 32, a Mt. Lebanon church organist; and Leonard C. Miller, 21, an Apollo policeman gunned down on his third day as a full-time officer.

The appeals

Tried together in 1981 and sentenced to death for Miller's slaying, Lesko and Travaglia pursued separate appeals. Each won a second shot at life in prison when appellate courts found flaws in their sentencing hearings.

A jury reaffirmed Lesko's death sentence after a second sentencing hearing in 1995. Jurors sentenced Travaglia to death a second time after a death penalty hearing in 2005.

Those sentences triggered more appeals that continue.

Travaglia's arguments are pending in Westmoreland County court. Lesko's appeals are in federal court.

In the interim, governors signed five warrants scheduling Lesko's execution and four scheduling Travaglia's execution. Each time, judges intervened.

“That's crazy. I can't imagine what it's like for the families of victims in the Lesko and Travaglia case. We want to make sure everyone gets a fair trial. We do everything we can to ensure no one who is innocent is convicted, but there is no reason it takes this long,” said Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico.

Marsico, a past president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, chairs a subcommittee of a bipartisan commission expected to deliver a report on the death penalty in 2015.

The central players

Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck has been involved in the Lesko and Travaglia case since shortly after becoming an assistant prosecutor more than three decades ago.

In the interim, Newcomer's mother, Miller's father and Nicholls' father died, as did many investigators and witnesses who testified in the original trial.

“It's frustrating,” Peck said. “I think it's frustrating for all the citizens of Westmoreland County because many of them know the nature of the crime and believe it warranted the death penalty.”

Peck said the slow, circuitous appeals process “reflects the ambivalence of many people in society about the death penalty.”

Marc Bookman, director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, an organization of defense attorneys who handle death penalty cases, said much of the delay can be traced to inadequacies in a system that permitted counties to appoint defense counsel without regard for an attorney's experience, and one that does not provide adequate resources to defenders.

“This has resulted in reversal after reversal, causing three justices on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to declare that the Pennsylvania death penalty system is in disarray,” Bookman said.

Retiring Chief Justice Ronald Castille, however, has blasted defense attorneys for lengthy delays in capital appeals and challenged some with having political agendas aimed at thwarting capital punishment.

Elsewhere, the record is mixed. West Virginia, New York, New Jersey and Maryland are among 18 states that have abolished the death penalty. In Ohio, authorities have executed 53 inmates since 1976. Virginia has executed 110; Florida, 89; and Texas, 519.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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