A Pennsylvania man was yelling racial epithets as he fatally shot three Pittsburgh police officers, but a jury hearing the case won’t be allowed to listen to those slurs, a judge ruled today, the second day of trial.
Richard Poplawski, who faces the death penalty if convicted, is accused of murdering officers Eric Kelly, Paul Sciullo Jr. and Stephen Mayhle when they responded to a report of a domestic disturbance in April 2009 at a Pittsburgh home the defendant shared with his mother.
Allegheny County Deputy District Attorney Mark Tranquilli said Poplawski’s statements to police will reveal a racist bent. The 24-year-old defendant’s racial slurs sounded “almost as if he was proud of what he had done. It was his one chance to make the history books,” Tranquilli told the jury, according to various media reports. Officer Kelly was black.
Public defender Lisa Middleman, who represents Poplawski, asked Dauphin County Judge Jeffrey A. Manning to redact racial slurs her client made, bringing an objection from the prosecutor. The judge granted the defense request to remove the racial slurs, but allowed the prosecutor to show the jury television news clips from the shooting scene which the public defender described as “inflammatory.”
After Poplawski’s arrest, a close friend said Poplawski was disturbed about various conspiracy theories he’d heard on Fox News host Glenn Beck’s show about the government confiscating guns, declaring martial law and building concentration camps. Poplawski also posted a link to Beck’s show on Stormfront.org, a white supremacist website, and was a fan of Alex Jones, a conspiracy-monger who hosts a Texas-based radio show that’s extremely popular on the radical right.
It remains unclear at this point if the jury, which is sequestered, will hear any details of Poplawski’s extremist leanings. If he’s convicted, those details could come during the penalty phase of the trial, when the jury decides whether Poplawski should be sentenced to death or life in prison.
In his opening statement Monday, the prosecutor said the defendant’s mother, Margaret Poplawski, called 911 after she and her son got into an argument over his failure to let puppies in the home outdoors to urinate.
After police were called, Tranquilli said, Richard Poplawski donned a bulletproof vest and armed himself with three weapons — an AK-47 assault rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun and a .357 Magnum handgun
When Sciullo arrived at what police expected to be a routine domestic disturbance call, Poplawski killed him with the shotgun, then engaged in a gun battle with Mayhle, who was the second officer to arrive and armed only with his .40-caliber Glock pistol, The Associated Press reported.
Meanwhile, Officer Kelly had just finished his overnight shift and arrived at his home about two blocks from Poplawski’s residence when he heard police radio calls about the shootings, Tranquilli said.
The prosecutor told the jury that Kelly never had a chance to get out of his SUV —he was gunned down by Poplawski, who was waiting for him on high ground. Poplawski was wounded before being taken into custody, but has fully recovered.
Poplawski’s attorney told the jury that some witnesses and physical evidence will contradict the police version of events. She suggested without elaborating that prosecutors haven’t accounted for the actions of Poplawski’s mother, who has not been charged. Prosecutors have not suggested that she aided her son in any way.
Middleman told the jury the prosecution was wrongly injecting emotion into the trial by repeatedly referring to the dead officers as “fallen heroes.”
The prosecutor also described Poplawski as a coward. “Richard Poplawski decided to shoot each one of [the dead officers] where they lay, just to make sure” they were dead, The AP quoted the prosecutor saying.
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 was already dead.
“This case is not about you deciding if these men were fallen heroes,” the public defender retorted. “This case isn’t about whether he [Poplawski] is a coward … [It] is about whether the prosecution has enough evidence to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Middleman told 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.”
The trial is expected to last two weeks.