Slaying trial opens in Pittsburgh officer deaths

A man being tried on charges he murdered three city police officers who responded to a domestic disturbance call was a "coward" who fired extra shots just to make sure the officers were dead, a prosecutor told the jury in opening statements Monday.

Allegheny County Deputy District Attorney Mark Tranquilli spoke for about 30 minutes to open what's expected to be a two-week trial before a sequestered jury. The jury, bused to Pittsburgh on Sunday, was selected earlier this month more than 150 miles away in Harrisburg to avoid any prejudice because of pretrial publicity surrounding Richard Poplawski, 24. He has pleaded not guilty.

Poplawski's mother woke him early on the morning of April 4, 2009, upset because he had failed to let some puppies out of the house before they urinated. When the argument escalated, Margaret Poplawski called 911, and while she mentioned her son had weapons, she told the dispatcher they were legal and not "in play" in the dispute, Tranquilli said.

Poplawski donned a ballistic vest and readied three weapons — a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with pellet- and rifled-slug shells, a .357 Magnum and an AK-47 assault rifle, Tranquilli said.

When Officer Paul Sciullo II arrived at what police believed was a routine disturbance call, Poplawski killed him with the shotgun, then engaged in a gun battle with a second officer, Stephen Mayhle, who was "outgunned" with only his .40-caliber Glock pistol, Tranquilli said. The third officer killed, Eric Kelly, had arrived home — about two blocks from Poplawski's residence — after an overnight shift but went to back up the others when he heard radio calls about the shootings, Tranquilli said.

"He never even got out of his SUV. Richard Poplawski was waiting for him on the high ground," Tranquilli said, noting how Poplawski fired on the officers, and at least nine others who responded to the shooting, from his house near the end of a dead-end street.

Another officer later testified that the wounded Kelly told him to "tell my wife and kids I love them" before he died.

Officer Timothy McManaway was overcome by emotion as he testified Monday, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported

"I said, 'You're going to have to tell them yourself. You're going to have to fight and get through this,'" McManaway said. "I was trying to get him to fight and be angry."

Poplawski faces three umbrella counts of criminal homicide, and could face the death penalty if the jury decides any or all the shootings rise to first-degree murder.

He's also charged with nine counts each of attempted murder and assault on law officers for shooting at other police, as well as lesser charges, prosecutors said.

Public defender Lisa Middleman told the jury that some witnesses and physical evidence will contradict the police version of events and even suggested without elaborating that prosecutors haven't accounted for the actions of Poplawski's mother. Margaret Poplawski has not been charged and prosecutors have not suggested she aided her son in any way.

Middleman told the jury Tranquilli was wrongly injecting emotion into the trial by repeatedly referring to the dead officers as "fallen heroes" and accusing Poplawski of cowardice after Tranquilli said, "Richard Poplawski decided to shoot each one of (the dead officers) where they lay, just to make sure" they were dead.

Tranquilli also warned the jury to disregard evidence that SWAT officers hit Sciullo with "friendly fire" when they fired back at Poplawski because that happened "after he (Sciullo) was already dead."

"This case is not about you deciding if these men were fallen heroes. This case isn't about whether he (Poplawski) is a coward," Middleman said. "This case is about whether the prosecution has enough evidence to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt."

Tranquilli said Poplawski's statements to police and negotiators will reveal a racist bent.

Tranquilli said Poplawski used racial slurs when he spoke to police and acted "almost as if he was proud of what he had done. It was his one chance to make the history books," Tranquilli said. Officer Kelly was black.

Middleman warned the jury, which includes two black men, that the prosecution's burden of proof "is not any less because they want to throw racial epithets at you at the start of the case so you will despise the defendant."