In less than a month, Richard Poplawski will know whether he is responsible for killing three Pittsburgh police officers in a Stanton Heights shootout and, if so, whether he should die for the act or spend the rest of his life in prison.
Selection of the jury that will decide his fate in the April 4, 2009, incident begins Tuesday in Dauphin County, with prosecutors seeking jurors open to the death penalty and defense attorneys looking for those who might be willing to show compassion. The jury will be picked from a pool of 350 in Harrisburg because of extensive pretrial publicity in Allegheny County. Then jurors will be brought to Pittsburgh to begin hearing the case on June 20. A total of 18 jurors will be selected, although only 16 will make the trip west. The extra two will be used only if one or two of the original 16 people chosen drop out between the time of selection and the day the trial begins. The jurors will be sequestered for the entirety of the case, which is expected to included extended court hours and weekend sessions. Judge Jeffrey A. Manning hopes the case is concluded by the start of the July 4 holiday weekend. Neither side is able to discuss the case because of a gag order on all parties, but experts say jury selection, especially for the defense, will be a difficult task. Mr. Poplawski is accused of killing Officers Eric G. Kelly, Paul J. Sciullo II and Stephen J. Mayhle after they responded to his mother's home for the report of a domestic dispute. Veteran defense attorney Caroline Roberto said the two biggest hurdles for Mr. Poplawski's lawyers are that there are multiple victims and that the victims are police officers killed in the line of duty. Arthur Patterson, a jury consultant with DecisionQuest, based in State College, agreed. "Certainly a case where a police officer is killed -- let alone two or three -- is difficult. There are certain crimes that really offend the community, and this is one," he said. Prosecutors in a case like Mr. Poplawski's will be seeking jurors who are heavily involved with their community and share a common set of values, Mr. Patterson said. "The prosecution is looking for [jurors who are] pro-police," he said. "There are a lot of citizens who feel very strongly about protecting law enforcement." For the defense, Ms. Roberto said she would seek jurors who think independently. "I would look for a juror who is absolutely fearless, one who would be able to, under the most difficult circumstances, challenge authority." Ms. Roberto recently represented Christina Korbe, who was accused of shooting an FBI agent during an early morning raid. Ms. Korbe pleaded guilty shortly before the case was to go to trial in federal court. She claimed that she fired at FBI Agent Samuel Hicks because she believed her home was under attack, and she was protecting her two young children. Though gender and race can play a role in jury selection, Mr. Patterson said that, generally, only occurs when those two factors are relevant to the specifics of a case. It is likely, he continued, that jury selection will focus significantly on who would be good for each side if the case reaches the penalty phase. "If the defense team believes the evidence is so overwhelming, the strategy is not to worry about guilt or innocence, but it's about whether they'll impose the death penalty," Mr. Patterson said. To be placed as jurors in a capital case, the members must be "death qualified," which means that they are open to imposing execution as punishment. That automatically tilts the case in favor of the prosecution, defense attorneys said, because it eliminates an entire group of people opposed to the death penalty. Mr. Patterson said that research shows that death-qualified jurors are more prone to convict than jurors in other types of cases. "That aspect of the trial is probably unfair to the defendant but there's no other way the prosecution would have the opportunity for a unanimous death-penalty verdict," Ms. Roberto said. That means, she continued, that the defense needs to seek out jurors who have "a level of compassion for the underdog." "You never know what might come out in the penalty phase that might be a complete bar to the death penalty. You have to have jurors who are at least open to saving someone's life." But with the strength of victim impact statements, Ms. Roberto said that can be an uphill battle. "I think it's extremely difficult in circumstances of multiple victims for jurors to challenge that in their own mind and sentence them to life," she said. "It's really an uphill battle that should be on a level playing field." - Paula Reed Ward, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Washington DC