By George Anastasia
Death by lethal injection or life in a "concrete box."
That's what the future holds for Kaboni Savage, his lawyer told a federal jury today at the start of the capital punishment phase of Savage's racketeering-murder trial.
In a low-key, but pointed opening statement, the lawyer, William Purpura, asked the jury to choose the box -- the concrete prison cell where Savage will spend the rest of his life.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Troyer, on the other hand, asked the jury to sentence Savage, 38, to death for orchestrating a series of murders, including one of the "most heinous crimes" ever committed in the Philadelphia underworld, a firebombing in which six innocent people -- two women and four children -- were killed.
Capital punishment in federal cases, Troyer told the jury, is reserved for the most heinous crimes and the worst offenders.
"This is that case," the prosecutor said.
The anonymously chosen jury, which convicted Savage and three co-defendants of racketeering conspiracy and related murder charges last week, began the process of determining whether Savage will live or die in the same 8th floor courtroom where it heard testimony for more than 13 weeks.
The penalty phase of the trial is expected to last for about two more weeks. First the jury will hear evidence and testimony on the capital punishment issue as it relates to Savage. Then, in a second hearing, the jury will be asked to determine life or death for Stephen Northington, 41, a Savage hit man convicted of two other murders during the trial.
Savage's sister, Kidada, 30, faces life in prison after being convicted of conspiracy and six counts of murder-in-aid-of-racketeering charges tied to the firebombing. Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty in her case.
Robert Merritt, 32, could also be sentenced to life on racketeering conspiracy charges. The jury found him not guilty, however, of the six murder counts tied to the firebombing, thus negating the need for a penalty phase hearing for him.
Dressed in a green prison jump suit, Savage said little during the first day of the hearing. He sat for most of the session with his elbow propped on the defense table, his head resting on his closed fist. Occasionally he took some notes or conferred with Purpura and Christian Hoey, the two court-appointed lawyers who represented him.
The former professional boxer is already serving a 30-year sentence for a 2005 conviction for drug trafficking. The only two options the jury has in the current case is life without parole or the death sentence.
"Kaboni Savage will never set foot out of a maximum security prison," Purpura told the jury, predicting that if sentenced to life he would be returned to the maximum security federal prison in Florence, Colorado, where he was serving his 30-year term.
There, Purpura said, he will be housed in solitary confinement in a concrete cell where he will take all his meals and where he will have no interaction with any other inmates. He will be allowed out briefly for exercise in an area Purpura described as a "dog run" and will be permitted one phone call a month.
"It's a terrible life," Purpura said, but it's the best option Savage has.
The only issue, Purpura said, is whether Savage lives out the rest of his life in that 8-by-10 foot concrete box "until his Maker calls," or whether he dies at the hands of a federal executioner.
Purpura said there was no justification for the violence that the jury heard about during the trial, but he urged the panel to end the "circle of violence" and spare Savage's life. He said the defense will attempt to present "the whole picture" of who Savage was, offering mitigating factors that would justify rejection the death sentence that prosecutors were seeking.
That picture, which will come from testimony offered by neighbors and family members, will include an account of how Savage had to assume responsibility for his mother and two sisters after his father died of lung cancer when Savage was just 13 years old.
At that point, Purpura said, he left school and headed for the drug underworld that was so much a part of the North Philadelphia neighborhood where he lived.
"It's not an excuse," Purpura said. "There's nothing to justify the actions you heard about ... But it will give you a better picture of Kaboni Savage."
Troyer argued, however, that the 13-week trial presented the jury with all it needed to vote for the death sentence. Under federal law, a jury must unanimously decide that a death penalty is warranted and must then vote unanimously to impose it.
The penalty phase hearing, the prosecutor said, will include some additional evidence and also testimony from the family members of Savage's victims.
Of the 12 murders, eight were tied to witness intimidation, including the firebombing in which the family of Eugene Coleman, an associate who had begun cooperating with authorities, was killed. Those were all aggravating factors that support a death sentence, Troyer said.
"They were killed," Troyer said. "Slaughtered by Kaboni Savage only because they were related to Eugene Coleman."
As it had during the trial, the prosecution showed pictures of the arson victims: Coleman's mother, Marcella; his step-sister Tamika Nash, his 15-month old son, two nephews, age 12 and 15, and a niece, age 10.
All six perished in an inferno that engulfed their North Sixth Street home in the early morning hours of Oct. 9, 2004. Savage was convicted of ordering the firebombing from his prison cell, a point that Troyer underlined in his opening.
A jail cell is not enough to keep Savage was wreaking havoc, he said. Only a death sentence will stop him. Troyer backed up that argument with references to several tapes played for the jury during the trial, secretly recorded conversations from Savage's prison cell.
On those tapes he ranted about killing "rats" and their families; joked about the firebombing, and promised to kill even more children and family members of cooperators. (Several of those tapes can be heard on bigtrial.net.)
"I'm gonna kill everything you love," Troyer quoted Savage in a conversation in which he threatened another former associate he suspected had turned government witness.
On others, he promised to continue to murder "til the day I day," telling an associate, "the fight don't stop til the casket drops."
Troyer urged the jury to deliver a sentence that would put Savage in that casket sooner rather than later.
It was a sentence, he said, "that Kaboni Savage has earned."
George Anastasia can be contacted at George@bigrtrial.net.