Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille this morning chastised both the judge and lead prosecutor in the 2011 trial of Richard Poplawski, convicted and sentenced to die for the shooting deaths of three Pittsburgh police officers five years ago.
His comments were made during oral argument before the court sitting in Pittsburgh.
The defense has asked for a new trial, claiming that the prosecution presented improper evidence at trial and in the penalty phase of the case.
Among the questionable evidence cited by assistant public defender Carrie Allman was the showing of video from the funeral for Officers Paul J. Sciullo II, Stephen J. Mayhle and Eric G. Kelly, which included bagpipes playing "Amazing Grace" during the penalty phase.
"What this DA did was build in a new trial for this," Justice Castille said. "Why is all that necessary? The crime itself is horrible. Why do you need things like bagpipes playing 'Amazing Grace'?"
He said that then-Deputy District Attorney Mark V. Tranquilli appeared to disregard many of the pre-trial rulings made by Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning limiting the inclusion of what could be inflammatory evidence to the jury.
But Justice Castille also questioned why Mr. Tranquilli, who won a seat on the Court of Common Pleas last year, wasn't reined in for his actions by Judge Manning.
"Where was the judge when this was going on? When you read the record, it seems like he didn't do anything to enforce [the pre-trial rulings]."
Ms. Allman agreed.
"The parameters changed constantly and consistently throughout the trial," she said.
Assistant district attorney Peggy Ivory, who argued for the commonwealth, said she didn't recall bagpipes in what she characterized as a "short video."
"It's not an emotional appeal," she said. "It shows the officers' caskets being brought out. It's nothing else."
As her argument continued, Ms. Ivory was asked several questions that appeared to favor the defense position. At one point, her voice began to crack, and she stopped speaking.
Three justices inquired if she was OK, needed a break or a drink of water. Several seconds later, she continued, but was clearly having difficulty.
Justice Correale Stevens, who appeared to be attempting to help her get back on track, asked, "You would agree there is overwhelming evidence to justify the jury's verdict in this case?"
"Yes," Ms. Ivory answered. "That's probably the most important point."
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