PITTSBURGH – A jury on Tuesday imposed the death penalty against a Pittsburgh man who gunned down three police officers in April 2009.
The same jury convicted 24-year-old Richard Poplawski on Saturday of three counts of first-degree murder, and 25 lesser crimes, for fatally shooting officers Paul Sciullo II, 36, Stephen Mayhle, 29, and Eric Kelly, 41, on April 4, 2009, after Poplawski's mother called 911 when an argument escalated about his puppies urinating on the floor. Poplawski surrendered more than three hours later, largely because he was bleeding from a leg wound inflicted during an exchange of fire with Mayhle, but not before peppering SWAT officers with fire from his 12-gauge shotgun, .357 Magnum and AK-47 assault rifle.
After hearing closing arguments and legal instructions from Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Manning, jurors spent about 90 minutes deliberating which punishment better fits the crimes Poplawski committed.
While they came back with death, he could have faced life without parole. Their verdict means Poplawski will die by lethal injection, although automatic appeals in such cases typically delay executions for years.
Public defender Lisa Middleman said she anticipated Poplawski will appeal.
Before the jury deliberated, Poplawski's attorney for the penalty phase of the trial, William Brennan, asked them to focus on Poplawski's dysfunctional, unloving home life and even suggested that the rampant distrust some people have for government these days, combined with Poplawski's legal "arsenal," might have created a "perfect storm, a tremendously horrible perfect storm."
The jurors were supposed to impose the death penalty if they believe the aggravating circumstances of the crime — multiple killings, police victims and others gravely endangered by the gunfire — outweigh the mitigating factors Brennan tried to prove Tuesday using testimony from 11 defense witnesses, most of them Poplawski's relatives.
Brennan argued that Poplawski's age and lack of criminal record were two such factors, with his troubled family life a third key. "To say he had a bad childhood is like the biggest understatement I've ever seen," he said.
The witnesses generally agreed that the sole stable, loving influence in Poplawski's life was Catherine Scott, his maternal grandmother, whose nickname Poplawski wrote in his own blood on a bedroom wall the day of the murders.
Brennan tried to suggest that Poplawski was warped by having grandfather Charles Scott as his "sole male role model" after Poplawski's parents divorced when he was a toddler. Catherine Scott's three sisters — and other relatives — testified that Charles Scott was a racist who threatened people with guns, frequently fought and was especially abusive toward the women in his life, raping one of his sisters-in-law and cruelly treating his daughter, Poplawski's mother, Margaret.
Charles Scott, who died earlier this year, once shot two telephones his wife tried to use to call for help during one argument, and also shot up her textbooks when she tried to get a GED diploma, which he opposed, according to the witnesses. Margaret Poplawski developed a history of psychological problems, which the relatives attributed to her father, has a drinking problem and has attempted suicide several times, according to the testimony she sat through silently next to her mother.
That resulted in Margaret Poplawski's largely loveless relationship with her son, who called her "Maggie," not "Mom," since he was an adolescent, according to several witnesses.
"I've never seen her kiss him or put her arms around and show any kind of affection for him," said Joanne Duffy, Poplawski's great-aunt and the sister-in-law who testified that Charles Scott raped her.
Allegheny County Deputy District Attorney Mark Tranquilli tried to blunt the testimony about Charles Scott by getting witnesses to acknowledge his most violent behavior happened before Poplawski was born or when the youngster was not around. Tranquilli also noted Scott suffered a debilitating brain injury when Poplawski was about 10 and had little ability to influence the boy after that.
Tranquilli argued that Poplawski's age is a non-issue because he cruelly killed three people when he was 22, four years older than some men and women are when they die in the military.
As to Poplawski's previously "clean" record, Tranquilli told the jury: "Richard Poplawski at age 22 1/2 committed more crimes in one day that most people commit in a lifetime. Why does it make it less terrible that he saved it up for one big hurrah?"
Instead, Tranquilli contrasted Poplawski's fatherless home life with one of his victims.
"I know another guy who didn't know a father in his life — Eric Kelly. How did he turn out?" Tranquilli said, noting that the doting father of three also helped raise a sister 22 years younger than himself as well as his oldest daughter's grandchild, who he often watched during the day after working an overnight shift. Kelly had just completed such a shift when he heard the radio distress calls that prompted him to head to the scene where Poplawski "assassinated" him before he could get out of his SUV, Tranquilli said.
Mocking testimony by Poplawski's parochial school principal about his intelligence, Tranquilli told the jury: "You know what happened to Richard Poplawski? He used that 135 IQ in the 99th percentile to do evil instead of good."