Richard Poplawski, whose life was entwined with racism, firearms and violence before he fatally shot three police officers, should be executed for his crimes, a jury in Pittsburgh concluded last night.
It took the 12-member panel only two hours to unanimously choose between the death penalty or life in prison for 24-year-old Poplawski, who spent time on a neo-Nazi website a short time before his deadly 2009 gun battle.
On Saturday, the same jury found Poplawski guilty of first-degree murder in the April 4, 2009, shooting deaths of Pittsburgh police officers Eric Kelly, 41, Paul Sciullo II, 37, and Stephen Mayhle, 29. Poplawski also was convicted of 25 companion crimes, including firing at nine other officers, wounding one, and endangering neighbors. “There are some cases where life in prison is just not enough,” prosecutor Mark Tranquilli told the jury yesterday before it began the penalty-phase deliberations.
Poplawski was motivated to commit the murders by white supremacy beliefs and a hatred of police, the prosecutor told the jury. “I don’t have to prove motive,” the prosecutor said, “but you can find motive on his computer on what he was looking at just hours before – [the racist website] Stormfront, white nationalism, which is a nice way to say Nazism,” the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported.
Poplawski did not testify during either the trial or the penalty phase. A fight with his mother over puppies urinating on the floor precipitated Poplawski’s gun battle.
The triple murderer had posted comments on the neo-Nazi website and uttered racist comments during his gun battle with Pittsburgh police, but the judge kept most of that evidence from the jury as prejudicial. However, in his closing argument, defense attorney William Brennan referred to his client's “anti-authoritarian” views, and said he was influenced by extremists, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
Earlier, with the jury out, Judge Jeffrey Manning reminded Poplawski that he had the right to address the jury. “I would like to apologize...” Poplawski said before his attorneys quickly stopped him from continuing, apparently not wanting to subject him to cross-examination.
In the penalty phase, family members told the jury that Poplawski was raised in a home dominated by guns, violence and a grandfather who frequently would embark on racial tirades. The grandfather who raised Poplawski once shot a family cat and also shot a telephone off the wall one Christmas Eve.
The defense attorney said the jury should not compare the three murdered police officers to Poplawski, the Post-Gazette reported. “These gentlemen, who were so good, got that way from the love and respect they got from their parents,” Brennan said.
Poplawski’s family background was dysfunctional and “obscene,” and he never knew parental love and comfort, Brennan told the jury. “Am I saying it's an excuse? No. But you want to know what it is? It’s a fact.” Brennan said that the love and respect shown to the three officers by their mothers was “totally absent” from Poplawski’s childhood. “To say, ‘Yes, he had a bad childhood,’ is the biggest understatement I've heard in my life."
But the prosecutor told the jury that life in prison would not be just punishment for the triple killer, whose acts still have far-reaching consequences of pain and suffering. Tranquilli reminded the jury of what relatives of the three slain officers told jurors Monday about the heartache they continue to suffer without their husbands, brothers, fathers and sons.
At one point, the Post-Gazette reported, the prosecutor laid the dead officers' three badges on a table for jurors to see, reminding them that because the victims were police, that was an aggravating factor warranting the death penalty.
“But more than that, these are three human lives lost just like yours or mine,” Tranquilli said, reminding jurors that Poplawski told detectives that life in prison would give him private time, enough to write a book.
The defendant’s father, Richard Poplawski Sr., testified briefly during the penalty phase, telling the jury he left the family when his son was about 3 years old because there was “too much bickering, too much fighting” in the household.
His wife at the time, Margaret Poplawski, stabbed him twice before the couple divorced, the elder Poplawski said, and he never attempted to gain custody of his son, who then was raised by his grandfather, Charles Scott.
In grade school, Poplawski was identified as a “gifted and supremely intelligent” student, with an 8th grade IQ of 135, according to testimony from Sister Mary John Cook, the principal of Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic school in Bloomfield, Pa., according to various media accounts.
His boyhood was dominated by his grandfather, who regularly carried handguns in his belt and was known for his racial slurs. The jury was told the grandfather once deliberately killed a family kitten, shot the telephone and sprayed bullets at family members one Christmas Eve. The grandfather, who hit both Poplawski's mother and grandmother, was the main male figure in the boy's life until Poplawski was about 10, according to testimony.
Poplawski's mother began drinking at an early age and first attempted suicide at age 12, when she took an overdose of pills. As a young adult, she attempted suicide again by throwing an electric iron into her bathwater, family members testified.
The prosecutor attempted to lessen the significance of some of those events, saying they occurred before Poplawski was born or when he was very young.
The jury on Monday heard from 10 surviving family members of the slain officers, including Mayhle’s widow, Shandra. Speaking to the jury, she quoted the couple’s now 6-year-old daughter’s reaction to her father’s murder: “Why did the bad guy have to kill Daddy, Mommy?"
Mayhle's wife also described another, older daughter's depression and her own daily struggles of living without her "best friend and high school sweetheart," Pittsburgh TV station WPXI reported. Poplawski held a tissue in his hand and appeared to be wiping away tears as a letter Mayhle's daughter wrote the day of his funeral was displayed, WPXI reported. It said, “Daddy, why did you die? I love you daddy.”
Defense attorneys began calling witnesses in the penalty phase, but told the judge they wouldn’t provide any testimony about Poplawski’s psychiatric makeup. Brennan said the defense was concerned that evidence barred during the trial phase would make it into the penalty phase if mental illness reports were introduced, WPXI reported.
The deadly gun battle broke out when the officers responded to a domestic violence call at Poplawski’s home, where he lived with his mother, Margaret Poplawski. She called police after he made threats because she had become upset that he had not let the family dogs outdoors and they had urinated on the floor.
As police responded to the call, Poplawski donned a bulletproof vest and loaded his three weapons — an AK-47 assault rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun and a .357 Magnum handgun. During and after the siege with police, Poplawski yelled racial epithets, according to testimony.
Sciullo was gunned down by a shotgun blast as he got to the front door. Then Mayhle, armed only with a .40-caliber Glock pistol, was shot “in the back like a dog” with an AK-47 after a brief gun battle in the house with Poplawski, trial testimony revealed.
Kelly, who had just gotten off shift and was at his home two blocks away, also responded to the scene, but was fatally shot before he could get out of his SUV, the jury was told.
Ballistic evidence revealed each of the three officers was shot multiple times with Poplawski's weapons. Poplawski surrendered several hours later, when he called 911 and asked for treatment of a leg wound inflicted by Mayhle.
One prosecution witness, a neighbor, testified that he saw Poplawski shoot Mayhle as he lay wounded on the sidewalk. Another neighbor, he said, saw Poplawski shooting Kelly as the officer sat in his vehicle.
Beside the three homicide counts, Poplawski was charged with 25 other counts, including attempted murder, assaulting police officers, recklessly endangering others, discharging a firearm in an occupied structure and unlawful use of an armored vest.
The trial phase moved quickly, in part, because the defense didn’t call any witnesses, including the defendant. Public Defender Lisa Middleman told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that the defense in the case centered on a thorough cross-examination of prosecution witnesses. “I did my job, which was to put them [prosecution witnesses] to the test," she said.
The defense strategy from the outset was not to deny Poplawski’s involvement in the fatal shootings, but to depict him as a damaged man who should be sentenced to life in prison and spared the death penalty.
In her hour-long closing argument, the defense attorney told the jury there is no proof Poplawski intended to kill the police officers, an element needed for first-degree murder convictions.
The defense attorney also questioned why police never tested Margaret Poplawski’s hands for gunshot residue or considered her possible involvement in the shooting. Police and prosecutors maintained she was not involved.
The prosecutor said Middleman's suggestion that Margaret Poplawski was involved with the shootings was ridiculous, that all she did was call 911.
The prosecutor said that only Richard Poplawski's blood was found on his firearms and he made various statements that he killed the police officers. The evidence against him was overwhelming, Tranquilli said, describing the defendant as a “coward who lays in wait for police officers.”