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Poplawski seeks new trial in state Supreme Court appeal

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Trib Total Media
Richard Poplawski is led out of Judge Jeffrey Manning's courtroom at the Allegheny County Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh on Tuesday, June 28, 2011.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Ronald Castille on Wednesday questioned how the judge and lead prosecutor handled the high-profile homicide trial of convicted cop killer Richard Poplawski, but he did not say whether he should get a new trial.

Poplawski, 27, is on death row at a state prison in Montgomery County for killing Pittsburgh police officers Eric G. Kelly, Stephen J. Mayhle and Paul J. Sciullo II on April 4, 2009, in an ambush at his Stanton Heights home. The state’s highest court heard arguments on Poplawski’s case at the City-County Building, Downtown, because he is seeking a new trial. The court did not set a deadline to make a ruling.

Poplawski’s attorney, Carrie Allman, argued that former Deputy District Attorney Mark V. Tranquilli presented improper evidence during both the guilt and penalty phases of the June 2011 case.

She said Tranquilli told jurors Poplawski posed a threat to prison guards and inmates, introduced evidence that he visited a white supremacist website and played on jurors’ emotions by showing photos and video from the officers’ funerals, including a clip of “Amazing Grace” played on bagpipes.

“What the DA did was build in a new trial for this,” Castille said. “Why is all that necessary? The crime itself is horrible.”

Castille said Tranquilli, now a family division judge, disregarded many of Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning’s pre-trial rulings.

“When you read the record, it seems like he didn’t do anything to enforce these pre-trial agreements,” he said.

Tranquilli declined to comment, citing judicial ethics rules.

“I have the utmost respect for the Supreme Court and the difficult job they have in reviewing these most difficult cases,” Manning said.

Assistant District Attorney Margaret Ivory said she didn’t recall hearing bagpipes in the video, but she addressed Tranquilli comparing Poplawski to a dog who “bit and will bite again.”

“They are very strong words,” Ivory said. “Maybe he was not the most eloquent.”

While Castille’s comments appeared to take Poplawski’s side, at least three of the other six justices must agree with him to form a majority, said John Burkoff, a University of Pittsburgh law professor.

“If the Supreme Court finds a problem only in the penalty phase, certainly an appropriate remedy is to remand for a new sentencing,” Burkoff said.

No trial is perfect, Burkoff added, and sometimes errors are deemed to have had no impact on the verdict or penalty.

“I certainly get some sense from the oral argument that at least one (justice) is sympathetic to the defense’s description of the problems, but we still don’t know yet if the chief justice’s sympathies will lead to a reversal,” Burkoff said.

Ivory appeared to become flustered toward the end of questioning and didn’t respond when Justice Debra Todd asked if she needed to pause for a minute or when several justices offered her a drink of water.

Justice Correale Stevens asked if Ivory agreed there was “overwhelming evidence to justify the jury’s verdict in this case?”

“Yes. That’s probably the most important point,” she said.

Mike Manko, a spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., said in a statement regarding the hearing: “This was an emotional matter for our community, and the court believes that we should have done a better job at controlling that emotion.”

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected].

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