Commonwealth v. Poplawski

Citation130 A.3d 697
Decision Date29 December 2015
Docket NumberNo. 654 CAP,654 CAP
Parties COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Richard Andrew POPLAWSKI, Appellant.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

130 A.3d 697

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee
v.
Richard Andrew POPLAWSKI, Appellant.

No. 654 CAP

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Argued April 9, 2014.
Decided Dec. 29, 2015.


130 A.3d 703

Carrie Lynn Allman, Esq., Elliot C. Howsie, Esq., Suzanne M. Swan, Esq., Allegheny County Public Defender's Office, Pittsburgh, for Richard Andrew Poplawski.

Margaret B. Ivory, Esq., Michael Wayne Streily, Esq., Allegheny County District Attorney's Office, Amy Zapp, Esq., PA Office of Attorney General, for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, STEVENS, JJ.

OPINION

Justice STEVENS.

This is a capital direct appeal from the judgments of sentence imposed following convictions on three counts of first-degree murder and related charges entered in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. For the following reasons, we affirm the judgments of sentence.

On the morning of April 4, 2009, 21 year old Richard Poplawski ("Appellant") was asleep in his Pittsburgh home when his mother, Margaret Poplawski, awoke him with a screaming complaint that their dogs were urinating and defecating on the living room floor. N.T. at 1391, 1447–48. The two argued bitterly until his mother threatened to call police to have him removed from the home. N.T. at 1448.

Appellant warned his mother against doing so and went back to his bedroom as she began to place a phone call. N.T. at 1448. As he listened to his mother's conversation with a 911 operator, he dressed himself in a level-three ballistics vest and other attire that he would later refer to as his "outfit for intended battle." N.T. at 1448. To complete the outfit he donned a belt designed to hold .357 ammunition and strapped down his Dan Wesson .357 magnum to his hip. N.T. at 1449. Other firearms, including a fully loaded AK–47 style Romarm semi-automatic rifle ("AK–47") and a 12–gauge shotgun loaded with alternating slug to buckshot ammunition, were propped up in the corner of his bedroom. N.T. at 1449.

At 7:05 a.m., Allegheny County 911 received Margaret Poplawski's report of a domestic dispute at her home and her request that Appellant be removed because they were arguing. N.T. at 61. Her voice was calm and she indicated that no violence or weapons were involved, although

130 A.3d 704

she confirmed that legal weapons were kept in the home. N.T. at 61. The dispatch conveyed "mother son domestic, wants her son out of the house, giving her a hard time, no weapons." N.T. at 62.

Margaret Poplawski returned to Appellant's bedroom and, seeing his preparations, expressed disbelief, saying "come on, you're not going to do this." N.T. at 1451. In his mind, Appellant would later tell authorities, he was saying to himself "come on with it," and he picked up his 12–gauge shotgun and walked out into the living room, where he could see a police officer at the threshold of the front entrance. N.T. at 1451–52.

Less than five minutes after receiving the dispatch, Pittsburgh Police Officers Paul Sciullo and Stephen Mayhle had arrived at the Poplawski home. It was Officer Sciullo whom Appellant first saw at the entrance, and he instantly fired his shotgun from the hip, striking down the officer with duty weapon still in holster. N.T. at 1452. This first shot was executed with a "point and click" Appellant would later explain. N.T. at 1452. Appellant then attempted to use the pump action of the shotgun to fire buckshot, but the gun malfunctioned, so he quickly ran to the kitchen to clear the slug shell and chamber a new round. At this time, he heard Officer Mayhle calling for assistance, and Appellant emerged from the kitchen to exchange gunfire with Mayhle inside the house. Mayhle landed two shots, one to the chest but stopped by Appellant's vest and one to the leg, forcing Appellant back toward the kitchen. Unable to see the officer's position, Appellant started firing into the wall between the kitchen and dining room and the firing stopped, but he did not know if he had hit the officer. N.T. at 1454. He ran into his bedroom to grab his AK–47 and started toward the front door, where he saw Officer Sciullo lying motionless on his back at the threshold and Officer Mayhle lying outside at the bottom of the steps. N.T. at 1454.

Pulling up to the scene at that moment was an SUV driven by off-duty Pittsburgh Police Officer Eric Kelly. Officer Kelly had just completed his shift and picked up his daughter from work, and the two were nearly home when they heard the police radio report followed by the sound of gunfire from the Poplawski home, which was less than two blocks away. N.T. at 106–07. After dropping off his daughter, Officer Kelly arrived at the scene and was immediately met with gunfire from Appellant's AK–47. Appellant fired upon the driver's door before the injured officer exited, and he continued to fire as the officer stumbled his way to behind the rear wheel well, from where the officer drew his duty weapon and fired futilely in several directions. N.T. at 1455. Appellant left the porch to survey the rear of the property and, seeing nothing, returned to the front.

Unsure if Officer Sciullo was still alive, Appellant stood over the officer and fired a single AK–47 shot into his neck. N.T. at 1455. He turned his attention to Officer Mayhle and fired several shots into his prone body, just in case the officer "was playing opossum," N.T. at 1455–56, causing the officer to twitch with each strike. N.T. at 92. Appellant then fired upon an immobile Officer Kelly, who never returned fire. N.T. at 1456.

With no other activity around his house, Appellant attempted to confiscate Officer Sciullo's sidearm pistol, but he could not disengage the retention strap of the holster. N.T. at 1456. He then returned to his bedroom to discard the depleted 40 round magazine from the AK–47 and reloaded with a fresh 30 round magazine. N.T. at 1456.

Pittsburgh Police Officer Timothy McManaway arrived at the scene at 7:17

130 A.3d 705

a.m. and saw the SUV with its driver's door open and Officer Kelly lying behind it, raising his hand. N.T. at 170. He ran to Kelly and managed to drag the officer to a safer position behind the SUV, but could not move him any further. Officer Kelly was bleeding heavily from wounds to his leg and torso, according to McManaway, but was able to speak for a short time before slipping into unconsciousness and losing a pulse. N.T. at 173–80, 245–52. McManaway also observed Margaret Poplawski at this time nervously smoking a cigarette and pacing outside the garage side of the home. She was not visibly armed. N.T. at 182. He yelled and motioned to her to leave the area when AK–47 gunfire coming from a window of the house was directed at him, tearing up the SUV and causing shrapnel to hit his face. N.T. at 175–76. McManaway returned fire and was shot in the left hand during the course of several exchanges. N.T. at 178–80.

Appellant's semi-automatic weapon kept rescuers at bay for over 40 minutes until an ad hoc rescue team comprising both S.W.A.T. and city police used a van draped with bulletproof vests to retrieve Officers McManaway and Kelly from the scene shortly after 8:00 a.m. N.T. at 184, 246. Just minutes later, S.W.A.T. personnel arrived in an armored vehicle and drove it up to the front of the house and were met with heavy gunfire for some time before the pattern changed to intermittent spurts of battle. N.T. at 367–73. Positioning of the armored vehicle to cover the location of Officer Mayhle enabled a rescue/recovery team to reach the fallen officer. Appellant had not been firing his weapon as the team approached, but "gunfire erupted" from his location when they prepared to lift Mayhle. N.T. at 373. No one was injured during the recovery, however. Eventually, a S.W.A.T. sniper positioned on a neighboring home's roof used a succession of seven or eight shots through the side wall to force Appellant from his strategic firing position deep within the room to a position closer to the window. N.T. at 433. At that moment, the sniper saw the barrel of Appellant's rifle protrude from the window and he struck it with a single round, disabling the rifle. N.T. at 434.

Shortly thereafter, Appellant called Allegheny 911 at about 9:35 a.m. and told the operator/dispatcher that he had run out of ammunition and was not shooting any more police officers. N.T. at 498. The call was transferred to the 911 supervisor, and eventually to a S.W.A.T. team negotiator on the scene, who construed Appellant's dealings as deceptive—at one moment saying he was "done shooting innocent police officers right now," and in the next saying "well, I just want to take one more shot" with his .357 revolver. N.T. at 527. When the negotiator asked him to simply toss the revolver out the window, which had no glass remaining in it at that point, Appellant claimed he could not. N.T. at 529. He also claimed he could not put his hands up at the window and remained out of view inside the room. N.T. at 530. Appellant also expressed anger over his disabled AK–47 and threw it against a wall during the phone conversation. N.T. at 528. When asked about Officer Sciullo, Appellant said not to worry about him because he shot him with a 12–gauge and something else...

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