By George Anastasia
The jury voted for death.
After deliberating for about eight hours over two days, the anonymously chosen panel in the murder-racketeering trial of North Philadelphia drug kingpin Kaboni Savage announced late this afternoon its decision to sentence Savage, 38, to death by lethal injection.
The panel chose death again and again, imposing the death sentence once for each of the 12 murder counts in the case and a final time for a count of murder as an act of retaliation against a witness. Six of the murders and the retaliation count were related to the October 2004 firebombing of a home in North Philadelphia in which two women and four children were killed.
The victims were family members of Eugene Coleman, a Savage associate who had begun cooperating against him. The arson was considered one of the most horrendous examples of witness intimidation in a Philadelphia underworld where witnesses and their families have been described as moving targets by law enforcement and underworld sources.
Tapes played during the trial included a conversation in which Savage underscored that situation. "No fuckin' witness, no crime," he said.
Christian Hoey, one of Savage's two court-appointed lawyers, said last night that he was "disappointed" in the jury's decision, but respected the panel's work. He said both the conviction and the death sentences would be appealed, a process that could take years.
Hoey said his client had no reaction when the jury decision was read in open court. Savage, a former boxer who is already serving a 30-year sentence for drug trafficking, is the first defendant in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to be sentenced to death since the federal death sentence was reinstituted in 1988.
Judge R. Barclay Surrick is to formally impose the sentence on Monday. The jury will then begin hearing testimony and evidence in the death penalty phase of the trial for a second defendant, convicted underworld hitman Steven Northington, 41. Northington is charged with two murders unrelated to the firebombing.
Savage, his sister Kidada, 30, Northington and Robert Merritt, 32, were convicted following a 13-week trial. Both Kidada Savage and Merritt could be sentenced to life in prison.
Lawyers for Savage had argued for a life sentence, the only other option the jury panel had once it had convicted Savage of the capital murder offenses earlier this month.
Among the aggravating factors the jury weighed in arriving at the death sentence were the heinous and brutal nature of firebombing murders in which Coleman's mother, his step-sister, his 15-month old son, two nephews aged 12 and 15, and a niece, 10, were killed.
The trial included testimony from Eugene Coleman and from Lamont Lewis who admitted that he had thrown a gasoline can into the Coleman home on North Sixth Street, turning the house into an inferno. Lewis said he was acting on orders from Kaboni Savage that were relayed to him through Kidada Savage.
The victims, prosecutors said and autopsy reports showed, had been "cooked" in a raging inferno that quickly engulfed the house shortly before 6 a.m. on Oct. 9, 2004. The murders of children and helpless victims were aggravating factors cited by the prosecution in seeking the death sentence.
Lewis testified that Merritt was with him and helped set the fire. The jury found Merritt not guilty of the six murder-in-aid-of-racketeering charges, but guilty of the racketeering conspiracy that was part of the arson. He could be sentenced to life as a result, but avoided a death sentence hearing.
In voting for the death sentence, the jurors rejected the impassioned plea of defense attorney William Purpura who in his closing arguments on Wednesday asked the panel to end the violence by choosing a life sentence for the convicted drug kingpin. He also asked the panel not to impose a harsher sentence on his client than the sentence that will be imposed on Lamont Lewis.
Lewis, under the terms of his plea agreement, faces 40 years to life.
Federal prosecutor Steven Mellin, on the other hand, argued that a death sentence was the only way to insure that Savage would not try to reach out from prison to murder witnesses or their families.
Eight of the 12 murders listed in the case were linked to witness intimidation, including the 2004 firebombing. The jury also heard hundreds of secretly recorded conversation in which Savage ranted and raged against cooperators, threatening to kill them and their families.
There were also devastating tapes in which he laughed and cackled about the firebombing and about killing the children of other witness. (Six of those Savage tapes can be heard on Bigtrial.net.). On one he joked that Coleman should have been given "barbecue sauce" to take to the funerals of his family members and that the sauce should have been poured "on those burnt bitches."
Savage ordered the firebombing while in prison awaiting trial on drug trafficking charges. He also ordered the murder of another witness while awaiting trial on a separate homicide case, according to trial testimony.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Gallagher, another federal prosecutor in the case, had compared Savage to a "mass murderer" during the penalty phase of the trial. In fact, the 12 murders place Savage in the upper echelon of underworld gangsters in terms of murder convictions.
Mob boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, for example, was convicted in a federal racketeering case in 1988 that included nine murders and four attempted murders. He was sentenced to 55 years in prison. In 1995, mob boss John Stanfa was sentenced to five consecutive life terms after being convicted of racketeering charges that included five murders.
Neither Scarfo nor Stanfa faced a potential death sentence, but in recent years several drug kingpins have been tried in capital murder cases in the Eastern District (which includes Philadelphia and its surrounding counties).
In those cases, however, the juries opted to impose life without parole.
In 2010, Maurice Phillips, a major cocaine trafficker who generated millions of dollars in a drug network that stretched from Texas to New York, was convicted of ordering the murder of a woman witness who had begun cooperating with authorities. Phillips was sentenced to life without parole.
In another capital murder case, three members of the notorious Boyle Street Boys, a Chester drug gang, were convicted in a 2006 case that included four murders. One of the victims was a woman, the mother of two young children, who had made straw gun purchases for the gang but had then begun cooperating.
All three gang members were sentenced to life.
In all, according to statistics gathered by the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit organization that tracks federal capital cases, there have been 69 defendants sentenced to death since 1988. Three have been executed. The other defendants are either still appealing those sentences or have had those sentences overturned on appeal.
The only other federal death sentence in Pennsylvania came from the Middle District where David Paul Hammer was convicted of strangling to death his cellmate in the federal penitentiary at Allenwood. Hammer, a career offender from Oklahoma, was serving a sentence of more than 100 years on an assortment of charges. He was sentenced to death, but has won an appeal overturning that sentence. The appellate court ruling has not yet been finalized.
George Anastasia can be contacted at George@bigtrial.net.