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Ronald Taylor gets death sentence

Monday, November 12, 2001

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Convicted murderer Ronald Taylor stared straight at the jury but showed no emotion as, one by one, all 12 of the jurors said he should be executed for killing three white men last year in a racially motivated shooting rampage in Wilkinsburg.

But Taylor's sister, Shirlynn, burst into uncontrollable sobs as the 41-year-old black defendant was led from the courtroom in handcuffs yesterday morning by five sheriff's deputies.

Ronald Taylor is escorted from courtroom after receiving a death sentence yesterday. (John Heller, AP photo)

Taylor's sister, his mother, Shirley, and two brothers, Chuck and Khalil, walked quickly past reporters and said they would no have comment on the verdict.

Carol Kroll, the wife of one of Taylor's victims, 55-year-old carpenter John Kroll, was also crying as she spoke to reporters afterward. Relatives of the other two victims, Joseph Healy, 71, and Emil Sanielevici, a 20-year-old college student, were near to tears.

In addition to the three men Taylor shot to death on March 1, 2000, he also wounded two other white men, Steve Bostard and Richard Clinger. They were in the courtroom of Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O'Toole when the sentence was read just before 11 a.m. yesterday.

On Friday, the jury of six men and six women convicted Taylor of three counts of first-degree murder and numerous other charges stemming from the shootings in Wilkinsburg's business district that stunned the community.

The jurors deliberated for about six hours Saturday afternoon and night in the sentencing phase of the trial without reaching a verdict. They returned to work about 9:30 a.m. yesterday and, about an hour and 15 minutes later, filed somberly into the courtroom to announce their decision.

The jury rejected an option of sentencing Taylor to life in prison without hope of parole.

O'Toole ordered a presentencing report to be done, then he will formally sentence Taylor to death. Taylor will become the 246th person on death row in Pennsylvania.

Most of the jurors filed out of the courtroom yesterday without commenting. The foreman, Mark Churchin of Robinson, said merely that their task in deciding Taylor's fate was "very difficult."

Juror Joy Webb said, "The whole trial was very hard and very emotional. It impacted a whole community. We took that all into consideration when we made our decision. I'm very glad it's over."

Juror Ronald Pastorek of Harrison said later that the jury worked very hard on the case, "as evidenced by the time it took to deliberate."

"There were some points that were clear and certain and other matters" had to be discussed, he said.

In dismissing the jury, O'Toole thanked them "for your efforts and your obvious dedication."

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. also thanked jurors "for their diligence and thoughtful consideration of all that was involved in this matter," in a written statement released yesterday. Zappala offered condolences to the families of the victims.

Kroll, choking back her tears, said, "I know it was very hard for those jurors to do their job. I thank them very much."

Sanielevici's father, Sergiu, and mother, Michaela, said they were grateful to the jury "for doing their duty."

As for the death sentence, Michaela Sanielevici said, "I feel Mr. Taylor brought it onto himself with his actions."

She said she "hoped to put this matter behind us now" but conceded she'll never be able to do that completely. She had several pictures of her son yesterday and said, "He's with me. I'm with him every night."

Sergiu Sanielevici said he was glad to see the jury "recognized that Mr. Taylor's crime was the worst crime an individual can commit. So it follows that you have to get the maximum punishment for it. Multiple homicide informed by racial hatred is not only destructive of individual life but of the fabric of society."

Kroll said that even though Taylor received a sentence of death, he will still have months, if not years, to see and talk with his family because of the automatic appeal of the sentence that state law requires.

She carried photos of her husband's grave and headstone, saying: "This is where I see my husband. This is where the kids and I have to go to see him.

"Dear John," she said, her voice trailing off in sadness. "Now I have to pull myself together."

John Kroll, a carpenter, wasn't even involved in a dispute that Taylor had had with a white maintenance man named John DeWitt. Taylor had a running feud, centered largely on race, with DeWitt, according to court testimony. But while he was looking for DeWitt, Taylor came upon Kroll and shot him to death.

Taylor then walked into the Wilkinsburg business district, where he shot and killed both Healy and Sanielevici in a fast-food restaurant, and shot and wounded Clinger and Bostard.

Neither Bostard nor Clinger would comment on Taylor's sentence.

But Healy's sister, Mary Healy, said she was opposed to the death penalty for Taylor.

Healy, who is a member of the Sisters of Mercy in Connecticut, said each person's grieving process is a "complicated thing."

She added, "If we are still in that time of rage, it gets in the way of our faith and our underlying commitment to life."

As for people who want the death penalty imposed, she said, "I'm afraid they will find, when everything quiets down, that it hasn't helped. I see no value in taking a human life. And I don't see it as the role of the state to do that. It's a violation, for me, of the basic dignity and value of each and every life in God's eyes."

When the jury announced the death penalty yesterday, Healy said she felt "a kind of numbness."

She added, "There's nothing to be gained by it. This man was never going to be freed to do harm to anyone else." Healy said that while she is grieving the death of her brother, she also feels sadness and compassion for the members of Taylor's family.

Healy's words were echoed in a statement from Bishop Donald W. Wuerl released by the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh last night.

"It is regrettable that, once again, a choice has been made to respond to violence with more violence," Wuerl said. "We have the means to protect society from even the most violent criminal without having to resort to the death penalty. Life imprisonment without parole serves the need for justice and at the same time reaffirms the essential dignity of all human life."

Wilkinsburg Mayor Wilbert Young said he felt the end of the trial would let the families of victims and the residents of the borough traumatized by the shootings move on with their lives.

"Personally I was hoping there would not be a death penalty, but I think the jury clearly put some thought into this and I know it was not easy for them," he said. "On behalf of the citizens of Wilkinsburg, we respect the decision of the jurors and appreciate their service."

John Elash, Taylor's defense attorney, said he "wasn't necessarily shocked" at the death sentence. He said the jury "was predisposed, by their morality, by their understanding of society, to give the death penalty." He said they would have been disqualified from serving on the jury if they had said they were totally opposed to the death penalty.

Taylor had pleaded innocent by reason of insanity. A defense psychiatrist, Dr. Horatio Fabrega, said he thought Taylor was suffering from deep-seated paranoia and schizophrenia that had plagued him much of his life.

But prosecutor Edward J. Borkowski contended that Taylor had the mental capacity to know that his actions were wrong.

Elash saved his harshest criticism yesterday for the law that allows victims' relatives to address a jury -- before sentencing -- about the impact the crime has had upon them. He said that just adds emotion to an already difficult situation and makes it almost impossible for the jury to do its work dispassionately.

"This political baloney of these impact statements [resulted from] where some stupid Republican senator wanted to get elected to Congress, so he allows these impact statements," he said angrily.

The jury members "listen to two days of tearful testimony and see pictures of the loved ones in happy moments. They cried for a day. They go through two boxes of Kleenex. Then the judge says we want you to ignore" the impact statements when the jury makes its decision.

But Elash praised the way O'Toole handled the trial, saying it had been very fair.

"There is no judge in this courthouse I'd rather have been in front of," he said. "I have nothing but the highest respect for Judge O'Toole."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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