An outside jury? The defense has a point in the Poplawski case

Written by Susan Mannella on .

Richard A. Poplawski, who is accused of killing three city police officers on April 4, made an unwelcome appearance for a pre-trial hearing in the Allegheny County Courthouse last week -- unwelcome because the crimes for which he is charged have shocked the Pittsburgh community.

That gut reaction has implications for this case. Saying that excessive coverage has been "inflammatory and slanted toward the guilt of the defendant," his attorneys are seeking to have his trial held in another part of the state or be heard here by a jury from another part of the state.

In truth, and as hard as it may be for some justly outraged people to admit it, his attorneys may have a point. Further, it may be in everyone's interest -- including the prosecution -- to concede the point.

The crimes alleged are sensational on their face and the coverage has been in natural proportion to their shocking nature. But this is the sort of case where a mere straightforward recitation of the facts cannot help being inflammatory and slanted toward the guilt of the defendant.

Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, who must rule on the question of whether an outside jury is needed, got a glimpse of local feeling on Wednesday when he quizzed 81 potential jurors about how much they knew about the case. Eight indicated they had never heard about the case; 38 said they could not put aside what they knew of the case; 45 said they already had a "fixed and unalterable opinion" about what the outcome should be.

This does not bode well. Could an Allegheny County jury be empaneled and could Richard Poplawski receive a fair trial here? Of course. But the question for the prosecution is: Why have a local jury hear this case when the issue of local bias is bound to generate endless appeals if the defendant is convicted and sentenced to death?

We are not in favor of moving the trial to another part of the state. Officers Paul J. Sciullo II, Stephen J. Mayhle and Eric G. Kelly were killed here; the defendant should answer the charges against him here.

But we see nothing wrong with bringing an outside jury to Allegheny County. If the evidence of guilt is as strong as we think it is, then any jury will acknowledge it. Eliminating future legal excuses for Richard Poplawski would not be giving him a break.


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