Cop killer Lesko 'closer to death' after new trial denied
By Richard Gazarik
Friday, February 25, 2011
Last updated: 5:14 am
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled yesterday that convicted cop killer John Lesko is not entitled to a new trial and penalty hearing for the 1980 murder of Apollo police Officer Leonard Miller during his "kill-for-thrill" spree.
The decision was made on an appeal to a 2006 ruling that granted Lesko a new trial and a third penalty hearing challenging his death sentence for killing Miller, a rookie policeman working only his third day on the job.
Chief Justice Ronald Castille wrote the opinion. Justices J. Michael Eakin, Max Baer, Seamus McCaffery, Thomas Saylor, Joan Orie Melvin and Debra McCloskey Todd concurred.
In 2002, Westmoreland County Judge Richard McCormick Jr. granted Lesko a new trial and sentencing hearing. District Attorney John Peck appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which has been reviewing the case since March 2008.
Peck said the ruling brings Lesko a step closer to execution.
"He's closer to the death penalty because he was not granted a new trial or sentencing hearing," said Peck, who has worked on the appeal with Assistant District Attorney Tom Grace for the past decade.
"We're extremely gratified. This appeal process has been a 10-year struggle," Peck said.
Peck said Lesko still can appeal to federal court in Pittsburgh, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals and even the U.S. Supreme Court, raising the same arguments he took before the state Supreme Court.
Lesko filed an appeal under the Post-Conviction Relief Act, claiming that his defense attorney, Rabe Marsh III, was ineffective because he failed to present mitigating evidence that would have spared Lesko the death penalty.
He said Marsh should have presented testimony that would have shown that Lesko had a troubled childhood that included abuse, a neglectful mother and psychiatric problems that would have made him ineligible for a death sentence.
Peck argued that Lesko had been examined by mental health experts in Indiana and Westmoreland counties before his 1981 trial, and "neither offered any indication that Lesko was brain damaged," the court wrote.
The ruling also exonerates Marsh, who was appointed to represent Lesko in 1980. McCormick had ruled that Marsh did not provide an adequate defense for Lesko.
"It is all too easy for the defendant or the court to second-guess a strategy that has proven unsuccessful," the justices wrote in the opinion. Rather, a reviewing court must make every effort to eliminate the distorting effects of hindsight, to reconstruct the circumstances of counsel's challenged conduct and to evaluate the conduct from counsel's perspective at the time."
The justices noted that the Lesko trial was not an example where Marsh failed to conduct any investigation.
"Instead, it is a case where counsel undertook a reasonable investigation and presented a compelling and partly successful case in mitigation, albeit the defense case did not ultimately carry the day," they wrote.
Lesko has professed remorse for the killing and is a changed man, according to the opinion. A chaplain at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford testified that Lesko is now a man of faith as he waits on death row.
Lesko's co-defendant, Michael Travaglia of Washington Township, also awaits execution.
Travaglia was granted a new trial and sentencing hearing in 2005. He again was found guilty of first-degree murder, and Westmoreland County Judge John Blahovec sentenced him to death.
Lesko and Travaglia went on a killing spree over the Christmas holidays, from December 1979 through Jan. 3, 1980, killing Miller and three others:
• Peter Levato, 49, of Pittsburgh was shot in a wooded area of Loyalhanna Township.
• Marlene Newcomer of Leisenring, Fayette County, was killed when she picked them up hitchhiking along Route 66 on New Year's Eve.
• William Nicholls, a former Irwin resident who was a church organist in Pittsburgh, was kidnapped on Jan. 2.
The pair threw Nicholls into an Indiana County lake after torturing him. They were driving his silver Lancia sports car when they encountered Miller and goaded him into pursuing them by nearly ramming his patrol car.
Photo : The murderer John Lesko