When Thomas Hopkins, a striking railroad worker, encountered co-worker Joseph Valotta on Irwin Avenue on the North Side just after midnight on October 30, 1922, Hopkins called him a “scab” for not honoring the strike against the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Valotta responded by shooting and killing Hopkins. When Pittsburgh Police Officer Edward Couch responded to the shooting, Valotta shot and killed him as well. He then fled.
A nationwide manhunt ensued. With police going door to door in the “foreign” section of Pitcairn, Valotta was arrested on November 5, 1922. He confessed to police, claiming he acted in self-defense when Couch, whom he did not recognize as a police officer, confronted him.
Valotta, an Italian immigrant, had earlier been linked to the Black Hand.
The gun Valotta used in the killings had been provided to him by police as part of their effort to support Pennsylvania Railroad and its non-striking workers against strikers. These kinds of police tactics, reminiscent as they were of the notorious Coal and Iron Police, led the American Civil Liberties Union only a few years later to declare that Pennsylvania led the nation in “police brutality and violence.”
After a brief trial and ninety minute jury deliberations, Valotta was convicted of second-degree murder for killing Hopkins and first-degree murder for killing Couch on March 14, 1923. He was sentenced to death on June 28, 1923.
His jury included Mrs. Wesley Hale, the first woman to serve on a trial jury in a capital case in Allegheny County history.
The long and winding path to the disposition of Valotta’s cases is in keeping with the moral, legal, and political challenges of executing the sentence of a defendant whose crimes were facilitated by the state charged with punishing him.
Valotta’s death sentence was postponed eleven times as he pursued his appeals. After the Pennsylvania Supreme Court “found no errors in his trial” (Commonwealth v. Valotta, 279 Pa. 84, 1924), he pursued relief in federal court. In “an unprecedented legal move,” a federal judge intervened to stop Valotta’s execution while it considered his claim that simultaneous trials for the killings of Hopkins and Couch were unconstitutional.
In a decision dated November 17, 1924, the same federal court reversed Valotta’s convictions (United States ex rel. Valotta v. Ashe, Warden of State Penitentiary, 2 F.2d 735, 1924). Reviewing Pennsylvania law all the way back to 1684 and common law from across the country and England, the court found that a single trial for two indictments charging separate crimes was unprecedented and impermissible.
The state appealed that ruling, resulting in a long series of respites of Valotta’s execution date while the matter worked its way through the courts.
Finally, the United States Supreme Court affirmed Valotta’s conviction and death sentence (Ashe, Warden of State Penitentiary v. United States ex rel. Valotta, 270 US 424, 1926). In his opinion, Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote that “there was not the shadow of a ground for interference with this sentence by habeas corpus.”
With that ruling, the state Pardon Board became Valotta’s last chance. During a hearing in May 1926, Valotta’s attorneys argued that their client had acted without premeditation and presented a letter in support of commutation signed by a federal judge, a senator, and several local dignitaries. Officer Couch’s widow spoke against commutation.
After numerous delays, Valotta’s capital case finally came to an end with the commutation of his sentence to life imprisonment on June 23, 1926. In support of its decision, the Pardon Board stated that the excitement, tension, and darkness surrounding the killings created circumstances that “do not fully measure up to first degree murder” He was transferred to Western Penitentiary.
The day after his commutation, the Post-Gazette wrote that Valotta’s was the “longest murder trial in the annals of American courts and the most unique criminal litigation of record under English Common Law.”
Valotta then pursued the last available remedy, a pardon. Despite support from Pittsburgh Mayor Charles H. Kline, who as a judge had presided over Valotta’s trial, federal judge W.H.S. Thomson, and the District Attorney’s Office, that request was refused on December 31, 1927.
Joseph Valotta died in Western Penitentiary on January 5, 1929. He is buried on the North Side.
Throughout his long legal ordeal, newspaper coverage of Valotta was overwhelmingly warm and supportive. Likely reflecting its anti-labor position, a largely sympathetic press referred to Valotta as an “Americanized Italian” and welcomed his every legal victory.