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3 jurors dismissed; Travaglia trial starts

| Tuesday, May 8, 2012, 1:52 a.m.

Before prosecutors could talk about the heartless murder and before defense attorneys could outline their client's good Christian character, a dramatic change occurred with the jury selected to decide Michael J. Travaglia's fate.

Westmoreland County Judge John E. Blahovec dismissed three jurors from service Friday morning before opening statements could begin in Travaglia's new sentencing trial.

The jurors each admitted talking with someone about the case since they were picked. Their admissions came after Blahovec polled the jury about whether they had read or seen anything about the case or discussed it, something he will do each morning during the trial.

The jury was assembled to hear testimony in a new sentencing phase for Travaglia, 46, formerly of Washington Township.

Travaglia and John C. Lesko were found guilty and sentenced to death in 1981 for the murder of rookie Apollo police officer Leonard C. Miller. Miller was the last person to die at the hands of Travaglia and Lesko, who killed three other people in an eight-day "kill for thrill" spree that began Dec. 27, 1979.

They also murdered Peter Levato, of Pittsburgh; Marlene Sue Newcomer, of Leisenring, Fayette County; and William C. Nicholls, of Mt. Lebanon, Allegheny County.

Travaglia's original death sentence was vacated by a federal judge in 1996 after years of appeals.

Now the new jury must decide whether Travaglia will stay in prison the rest of his life or die for his crime.

Jurors have not been sequestered, making it necessary for Blahovec to question them on whether they discussed the case.

Two jurors said they had been identified by a newspaper's accounts of jury selection and either they or family members were questioned by acquaintances. Another juror said she sought out her assistant pastor on a question about the Bible's teachings on capital punishment.

A juror who works at an Allegheny County child advocacy agency said his wife, who is seven months' pregnant, was approached by a fellow church member on Sunday. The juror told the courtroom that the church member was able to identify him and his wife through a newspaper article.

"(My wife) was concerned if someone knew it was us," he said. "It was bothersome that someone would identify us so quickly."

He said his wife's concerns would impact his ability to serve as a juror, and he was dismissed.

A female juror, who works as a teacher at a Monroeville Bible school, was dismissed after she told the judge she contacted her assistant pastor.

Defense attorneys said they found no problem with that juror's actions, especially when she said she would make up her own mind about the death penalty.

But Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck argued that the juror failed to follow the judge's basic instructions and should be dismissed.

The defense then successfully argued that a third juror should be disqualified. He said newspaper accounts led customers at the building supply company he manages to talk to him about his role on the jury. The man then discussed those conversations with his boss.

The dismissed jurors were replaced by three of four alternates.

But the question of whether to proceed with only one alternate juror remained.

No jury panels were scheduled to be at the courthouse, so more alternates could not be picked. Blahovec ruled out rounding up potential jurors from the "highways and byways" of Westmoreland County as was done in days gone by.

After mulling over his choices for more than an hour in chambers, Blahovec decided to proceed with only one alternate.

Blahovec asked jurors to rest and take plenty of vitamins.

"We only have 13 jurors so we'd like to have all of you with us so we can complete this trial whenever that is," he said.

The new jury of nine women and three men finally heard opening statements and the testimony of the first witnesses in the afternoon.

Peck wasted no time informing the jury that Travaglia is already guilty of first-degree murder. They only have to decide his sentence.

"You as jurors are going to assess the defendant's character, to assess him as a person, to assess whether or not he deserves the death penalty," Peck said.

He said words about Travaglia's character should not hold much weight with the jury.

"No matter what we say about ourselves, no matter what our friends or enemies say about us, it's not words that you can rely on, it's the person's actions," Peck said.

Peck outlined Travaglia's actions at the time of Miller's killing -- how he, Lesko and a teenager named Ricky Rutherford picked up Nicholls outside a Pittsburgh hotel. How Travaglia shot Nicholls. How they drove him up to Blue Spruce Lake in Indiana County. How Lesko and Travaglia tied a rock to him and drowned him.

"When they got back, they laughed and joked about what they had done -- how William Nicholls had bobbed up in the ice after they placed him in the frozen lake," Peck said.

He told the jury how the three drove to Washington Township to Travaglia's parents' home and stole a handgun and ammunition.

Peck explained how the three drove Nicholls' sports car into Apollo and baited Miller into chasing them across the Apollo Bridge into Westmoreland County.

When Miller approached their car, Travaglia shot him twice. Miller shot back then crawled to his patrol car and desperately called for help.

"Leonard was armed that night. He was armed for a noble purpose -- to defend all of us as citizens," Peck said. "(Travaglia) was armed for evil, malicious murderous reasons."

Defense Attorney Ned Nakles Jr. did not dispute any of the facts of the case. In fact, he said, he will sit quietly as prosecutors put on their case, laying out the crime for the jury.

"I wish we had something to say about it, but we don't," Nakles said. "Michael Travaglia is guilty of first-degree murder, but his is a life worth saving."

Nakles described Travaglia as a good, quiet boy who played in the marching band and participated in school musicals. He said amphetamine abuse led Travaglia to become paranoid and delusional.

Since his conviction, Travaglia has become a devout Christian who earned the privilege to work janitorial jobs even while on death row.

"Michael's character was of an evil, if not confused, animal back at the time of the murders in 1980," Nakles said. "But that's not the man anymore. That is not the man anymore."

Nakles plans to call a number of witnesses to discuss Travaglia's character -- from his high school principal to Department of Corrections employees.

But witnesses yesterday detailed Miller's painful final moments.

Former Vandergrift police Chief Louis Purificato, then an officer, was one of the first people to respond to Miller's distress call.

Purificato said Miller was lying by his cruiser, his hands and face covered in blood.

"The blood was leaving his body," Purificato said. "It was flowing down the highway."

William H. Kerr, then the mayor of Apollo and now the superintendent of the Armstrong School District, arrived at the scene shortly after hearing shots fired.

"I knelt at his side and asked him several times (if he knew who shot him)," Kerr recalled. Miller, a police officer since his high school graduation, never answered.

"It was without question a very violent crime scene, and he was suffering and trying to hold on to his last breath," Kerr said.

Miller had been a Boy Scout and a volunteer firefighter, Kerr said. He had just moved to a full-time position with Apollo's department on Jan. 1, 1980.

Two days later he was dead.

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