PITTSBURGH — A jury on Tuesday imposed the death penalty against a Pittsburgh man who gunned down three police officers in 2009, prompting dozens of officers who gathered in a courthouse hallway to erupt in applause and tears as prosecutors and the victims' relatives emerged from the courtroom.
The jury had convicted Richard Poplawski, 24, on Saturday of three counts of first-degree murder and 25 lesser crimes for shooting the officers 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 one of the officers, but not before peppering SWAT officers with fire from his 12-gauge shotgun, .357 Magnum and AK-47 assault rifle.
"This was an opportunity for them to see the face of Richard Poplawski which, for us, was the face of evil," Assistant Chief Paul Donaldson said of the rank-and-file officers outside the courtroom.
Jurors spent about 90 minutes deliberating whether to sentence Poplawski to death or life in prison without parole for killing Paul Sciullo II, 36, Stephen Mayhle, 29, and Eric Kelly, 41.
Afterward, sheriff's deputies guarded the slain officers' family members, who told the media through the district attorney's office that they did not wish to comment. Despite that, Clarence Peays, Kelly's brother-in-law, spoke briefly, saying he thought the swift verdict sent a message.
"It shows me that the evidence was overwhelming," he said.
Peays, 48, said he believed justice was served and his healing is ongoing. "It's going to take time to have closure, but with time it will heal," he said.
The death sentences mean Poplawski will immediately be taken to a death row cell until the governor signs a warrant for him to die by lethal injection, although appeals in such cases typically delay executions for years. Public defender Lisa Middleman said she anticipated Poplawski will appeal but declined to say what issues she may raise.
"The trial was so long and there were so many issues. I want to wait to read the transcript," before settling on appeal issues, Middleman said.
Pennsylvania has had only three executions since 1978.
Because of the appeals process Poplawski's death may be decades away, according to University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris.
"We are a people who care about the rule of law, that wants to get it right, who wouldn't sentence somebody to death and execute them unless we can be sure. There's no more important decision," Harris said.
Currently in Pennsylvania there are 213 convicted killers on death row awaiting decisions for a new trial. Poplawski has become number 214.
A state correction official confirmed to Channel 11 News that Poplawski will leave the Allegheny County Jail and will be sent to Camp Hill Penitentiary.
After a complete physical and mental evaluation, Poplawski will immediately be placed in a single cell, solitary confinement for 22 hours a day. He gets two hours for exercise and a shower. Poplawski will be permitted one 15 minute phone call per week and one 15 minute visit through bullet-proof glass.
Poplawski will eventually be transferred out of Camp Hill to either Graterford or Greene maximum security prisons and when a death warrant is signed, he'll be taken to Rockview's Execution Housing Unit to await lethal injection.
Before the jurors deliberated, Poplawski's attorney for the penalty phase of the trial, William Brennan, asked them to focus on the gunman's dysfunctional home life and suggested that the rampant distrust some people have for government these days, combined with Poplawski's arsenal, might have created a "a tremendously horrible perfect storm."
Poplawski's mother, Margaret, held tightly to a wooden railing in front of her, trembling slightly, red-faced and teary-eyed as Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Manning read the jury's verdict formally into the record. She left the courtroom before Manning finished addressing the jury.
Three jurors told Channel 11 News how the evidence, testimonies and even Poplawski's facial expressions were enough to sentence him to death.
The jurors, who asked to remain anonymous, said Poplawski's difficult and dysfunctional childhood wasn't enough to consider giving him life in prison. It also didn't help that he showed no remorse for his actions, they said, and statements from the victims' families had a major impact on their decision.
“Clearly they were all family men and involved in their families, and it's very sad that they're taken away from that. That had a great impact,” said juror No. 5.
The jurors had been instructed to impose the death penalty if they believed the aggravating circumstances of the crime -- multiple killings, police victims and others gravely endangered by the gunfire -- outweighed the mitigating factors Brennan tried to prove 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 his maternal grandmother, Catherine Scott, 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 drank a case of beer daily and 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.
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 his family.
"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 blunted much of 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.
The jury apparently agreed with Tranquilli, who argued Poplawski's age was a non-issue because he cruelly killed three people when he was 22, four years older than some men 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 than 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 that of one of his victims, Eric Kelly, and the testimony the slain officer's mother, Frances Kelly, gave Monday when she talked about raising him alone in a crime-ridden city housing project.
Frances Kelly said, "Just because you grow up in a bad environment doesn't mean you have to become part of that environment," Tranquilli said. "Richard Poplawski could have learned a lesson from Frances Kelly."
Tranquilli finished by paying tribute to the victim's families: "I don't think any of this would have been possible without the quiet grace of the Sciullo family, the Mayhle family and the Kelly family."
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl released a statement Tuesday, saying, “Our thoughts and prayers stay with the families of our fallen officers. Over the past week, these families have been forced to relive the most horrific day of their lives and they did so with the utmost character, dignity and grace."
Manning scheduled sentencing for Sept. 6 on the rest of Poplawski's charges -- including nine counts each of attempted murder and assault on a law officer stemming from other police he fired upon.
June 26, 2011: Poplawski Found Guilty On 3 Counts Of 1st-Degree Murder
June 25, 2011: Poplawski Trial: Defense To Call No Witnesses
June 23, 2011: Slug Found Embedded In Poplawski's Bulletproof Vest
June 22, 2011: Poplawski 911 Call: 'I'm Lying In A Pool Of My Own Blood'
June 21, 2011: Teen Says Poplawski Told Him 'I Shot 3 Cops'