PITTSBURGH – A man facing the possible death penalty for murdering three Pittsburgh police officers cried Monday as the widow of one officer testified about nightmares, suicidal thoughts and other problems her two young daughters have had ever since.
Shandra Mayhle was the final witness to testify for the prosecution in the penalty phase of the first-degree murder trial of Richard Poplawski, 24, who was convicted Saturday of killing her high school sweetheart-turned-husband, Stephen, and two other officers on April 4, 2009. That same jury must now decide if Poplawski deserves death or life in prison without parole for the murders based, in part, on the victim impact testimony by Mayhle and nine other surviving members of the officers' families.
Poplawski wiped his eyes with a tissue and shook his head as he rested it in his hand when Mayhle testified that her girls know "Poplawski" is the last name of the "bad guy" who killed their father. He seemed especially shaken by Mayhle's testimony about statements her girls, Jennifer, 8, and Brooklynn, 6, have made since the murders.
"Sometimes I think about hurting myself so I can go see Daddy," Mayhle said, recounting one such statement by Jennifer. On another occasion, one of the girls tried to explain her continuing grief by saying, "I want to smile, but my cheeks won't let me," their mother said.
Poplawski was far from the only person crying in Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Manning's courtroom on Monday.
Many family members and spectators, and even a sheriff's deputy guarding the courtroom, cried as the parents, spouses, siblings and children of the officers testified about how their lives have changed since the deaths of Mayhle, 29, and Officers Paul Sciullo II, 36, and Eric Kelly, 41.
The jury found Poplawski donned a bulletproof vest and grabbed three loaded guns — a 12-gauge shotgun, a .357 Magnum and an AK-47 assault rifle — before Sciullo could arrive to investigate a 911 call from Poplawski's mother. She wanted police to remove Poplawski from the house after she argued with him about his puppies urinating on the floor of their home.
The jury found Poplawski gunned down Sciullo as he got to the front door, then shot Mayhle with an AK-47 after a brief gunbattle in the house, before ambushing Kelly as he drove up in his personal vehicle. Kelly was off-duty but stopped to help after hearing radio distress calls about the first two killings. Poplawski surrendered several hours later when he called 911 for help because of bleeding from a leg wound inflicted by Mayhle, who also fired a shot stopped by Poplawski's vest.
Tranquilli told the jury he's already proven the three aggravating circumstances that merit the death penalty: The victims were police officers, there were multiple killings, and others were put in mortal danger by Poplawski's actions. Poplawski was also convicted of firing on nine other officers, wounding one, and of endangering neighbors whose homes were hit with gunfire.
Poplawski's attorney, William Brennan, told the jury on Monday that Poplawski's relative youth and lack of a criminal record should be considered as mitigating factors, as well as his upbringing — specifically his alcoholic, suicidal mother and his late, hard-drinking grandfather who helped raise Poplawski and was known to threaten people and shoot telephones off the wall when he was angry.
Tranquilli told the jury that Poplawski's background were all but irrelevant given the immensity of his crimes.
"Hey folks, three dead police officers and a bunch of neighbors in the zone of danger, that's a day's work," Tranquilli said, going on to compare Poplawski to a vicious dog. "How important is it that this dog waited to bite and then bit three times in the same day instead of spacing them out over his 24 years?"
If the jury agrees with Tranquilli, the "victim impact" testimony provided by Mayhle's widow and the other family members should be crucial since it serves as a kind of tie-breaker should the jury decide that there are both "aggravating circumstances" — which made the killings worthy of the death penalty — and "mitigating circumstances," such as Poplawski's allegedly abusive upbringing, that might merit sparing his life.
Kelly's mother, widow, daughter and younger sister, Danielle Cheatham, testified about their loss, describing Kelly as a hard-working, doting husband and father who made sure his three daughters had something he never had growing up — a father. Cheatham called her older brother "the glue" of the family, while his wife, Marena, 42, said she has lost 60 pounds, suffers anxiety attacks and can't sleep through the night.
"I still smell his scent on empty pillows I lay next to," Marena Kelly said.
Sciullo was a bachelor, but his parents and sister testified that he, like Kelly, was a central figure in the family.
His sister, Julia Mullen, said her now 21-year-old son vomited and collapsed when learning of his uncle's death and has been in therapy ever since. She said her brother Paul had been a surrogate father to the boy, whose father she divorced when he was young.
Mullen said the killing also affected her parents, saying her father, now in his 70s, suffers so much from his son's murder that she wished their father had died when he had a serious heart attack at age 55 "so he wouldn't have this pain."
"The mother that I had on April 3 (2009) is not the mother that I have on June 27, if that's what today is," Mullen said, crying. "She's not the same anymore. She's there, somewhere."