PITTSBURGH (AP) - A man described by prosecutors as a malcontent weapons enthusiast and expert marksman was found guilty of three counts of first-degree murder and 25 lesser counts in the 2009 killings of three Pittsburgh police officers who responded to his mother's 911 call about their escalating argument over his puppies, which had urinated on the floor.
The jury deliberated just over three hours before returning the verdict against 24-year-old Richard Poplawski. He will return to court Monday so the same jury can hear evidence about his mental state, background and other issues before deciding if he deserves the death penalty or life in prison without parole on the murder counts, the three most serious charges he faced.
About 50 Pittsburgh police officers lined the hallway outside Allegheny County Judge Jeffrey Manning's courtroom and burst into applause when Deputy District Attorney Mark Tranquilli emerged victorious.
"We're not just dealing with three victims' families here," Tranquilli said of the police reaction to the verdict. "I think the fourth family is nearly the entire law enforcement community in Allegheny County."
The dead officers' families were led from the courtroom by sheriff's deputies and hugged many of the police lined up in the hallway as they left. They did not comment and were expected to say little until after the jury decides whether Poplawski receives a death sentence sometime next week.
Poplawski's public defender, Lisa Middleman, was not surprised by the verdict given the overwhelming evidence against him, including a confession, vast amounts of spent weapons shells and other crime scene evidence, and statements by several officers and neighbors who witnessed the fatal shootings or the gun battle with SWAT officers that followed.
Middleman called no witnesses and introduced just a few photos to attempt to show that police altered the crime scene by tramping through blood or moving other evidence as they moved in to arrest Poplawski. By contrast, Tranquilli called 41 witnesses and introduced 500 exhibits.
"I think to ask a jury to render a verdict in the deaths of three police officers and expect them to come up with anything other than a guilty verdict with this kind of evidence would have been unrealistic," Middleman said.
Poplawski did not comment as he was taken from the courtroom, and the judge ordered his mother, Margaret, removed after she stood up following the verdict. Manning said he was concerned she was about to create an outburst and had sheriff's deputies remove her as a precaution. Outside, she told some reporters she still loved her son, but also cursed at others.
The jury's verdict supports Tranquilli's contention that Poplawski, who held anti-government views and was known to frequent white supremacist Web sites, essentially used his mother's 911 call as an opportunity to vent his pent-up frustrations against the officers who responded to their home shortly after 7 a.m. on April 4, 2009. Manning had ruled that Poplawski's political and racial views were irrelevant and prejudicial, so the jury heard little of them - save for some racial slurs he used in statements to police and in recorded calls with police and a 911 dispatcher who helped orchestrate his eventual surrender about 3 1/2 hours after the first officer was shot.
The first patrolman to answer the dispute call, Paul Sciullo II, 36, was shot in the head with a 12-gauge shotgun in Poplawski's front doorway as he arrived. And later, as he lay dying, he was shot several more times with two other weapons Poplawski bore that day, a .357 Magnum and AK-47 assault rifle, Tranquilli said. Officer Stephen Mayhle, 29, ran into the house and fired at least eight shots from his .40 caliber service pistol, one that wounded Poplawski in the leg and the other hitting a bullet-proof vest he donned after his mother called 911, as he armed himself for the police arrival.
Mayhle eventually retreated when Poplawski dropped his shotgun and began firing with the AK-47, and was killed after being shot in the back and head outside the house.
The third officer killed, Eric Kelly, 41, was already off-duty by that time. He lived two blocks away and was shot as he drove up in his personal vehicle - evidence showed Poplawski hit it with 23 shots - after hearing the other officers' distress calls on the radio after he arrived home from an overnight shift.
Poplawski was also convicted of nine counts each of attempted murder and assault on a police officer for firing on police who tried to rescue Kelly and others in an armored SWAT vehicle who traded fire with Poplawski. The jury also found him guilty of wearing the vest - a crime for a civilian engaged in a felony; firing shots that hit two neighbors' homes, and recklessly endangering four neighbors in the gun battle.
Middleman had also tried to convince the jury that reasonable doubt remains about whether Poplawski's mother was involved - even though she's never been accused of a crime in the incident. Prosecutors say no evidence suggests she had a role in the shootings, although Tranquilli said she may have had a moral duty - not a legal one - to call 911 if she knew her son was arming himself before police arrived, but didn't do that.
Middleman was expected to focus on Poplawski's mother in attempting to mitigate his actions and avoid the death penalty next week. Told that Margaret Poplawski was removed from the courtroom, Middleman called it "one of her usual difficulties in handling situations that are stressful." In her closing argument, Middleman suggested the "sick" atmosphere in the Poplawski home led to the shootings.
"Something so sick was going on in that house on April 4 and for years before that," Middleman said.