The deadliest day in the long history of the Pittsburgh Police Department, April 4, 2009, began with 22-year old Richard Poplawski and his mother arguing over the behavior of his dogs at her home at 1016 Fairfield St., Stanton Heights. The argument escalated to the point that she called the police and encouraged them to enter her house to remove Poplawski, who had a history of violence against his mother and girlfriend.
Lying in wait armed with multiple weapons, Poplawski, an avowed white supremacist, anti-Semite, Stormfront member, and gun rights extremist who believed those rights were at risk under newly-elected President Obama, shot and killed three Pittsburgh police officers, Eric Guy Kelly, Paul J. Sciullo II, and Stephen James Mayhle, as they attempted to enter the home.
Poplawski was finally arrested after a four-hour standoff in which he and three additional officers were wounded.
There are conflicting accounts as to whether Poplawski’s mother, Margaret, knew the officers were being drawn into an ambush. However, it is known that the 911 dispatcher failed to tell police that there were guns in the home after being told that there were by Margaret Poplawski.
Tried in Allegheny County by a jury selected in Dauphin County due to the notoriety of the case, Poplawski was convicted of three counts of murder and twenty-five related charges on June 25, 2011. With overwhelming evidence of his guilt, the greater legal uncertainty was whether Poplawski’s defense could avoid a death sentence. After presenting mitigating evidence related to Poplawski’s youth, his lack of a criminal record, and the racist, violent, and unstable home in which he was raised, the jury deliberated for 90 minutes before determining the many aggravating features of Poplawski’s case outweighed the mitigating evidence and sentenced him to death.
His conviction and sentence were sustained on appeal (Commonwealth v. Poplawski, No. 654 CAP, 2015) due to the strength of the evidence “overwhelmingly establishing that he intentionally and fatally shot three police officers without provocation.”
Richard Poplawski remains in prison under a sentence of death.
He was the last person from Allegheny County to be sentenced to death. With an execution moratorium in place; abolition of the death penalty in recent years in New York (2007), New Jersey (2007), Delaware (2016), and Maryland (2013), joining West Virginia (1965); declining death sentences and executions nationwide; and only three executions in Pennsylvania since 1962, it is entirely possible that no additional death sentences will be imposed. It is all but certain that no additional executions of Allegheny County defendants – the last was in 1959 – will take place.