Monday, May 27, 2013

A Killer Who Loved His Little Daughter

By George Anastasia

The words were spoken in a soft and loving voice.

There was none of the arrogance or anger that the jury had heard in so many of his other conversations. This was Kaboni Savage, loving father, talking by phone to his four-year-old daughter Siani.

"I love you," he said, a lilt in his voice. "I miss you. I can't wait to see you."

The little girl, who had not seen her father in months, responded in kind. This was in September 2004. Savage had been arrested in April of that year.

 He's been in jail ever since.

During the 13-week racketeering-murder trial that ended earlier this month with his conviction, prosecutors played dozens of tapes in which Savage, 38, ranted and raged against former associates who had begun cooperating with the government, promising to kill them and their families. After six people, including four children, died when the home of a witness was firebombed on his orders, Savage was heard cackling, laughing and boasting about the inferno that prosecutors said had "cooked" the victims alive. 

In all, Savage was convicted of 12 murders. Eight have been linked to witness intimidation. Among the bloody and homicidal comments that have echoed around the courtroom, there was his succinct underworld philosophy: "No fuckin' witness, no crime."

But that wasn't the side of Kaboni Savage that his lawyers wanted to present to the jury last week while trying to save his life. Through the testimony of a series of witnesses and the playing of selected tapes they offered what they hope will be mitigating factors that will convince at least one of the jurors that life without parole rather than death by lethal injection is a justifiable and warranted sentence for the convicted murderer.

Kaboni Savage, loving father, laughing, joking and talking sweetly with his then four-year-old daughter, that's who the defense wanted the jury to hear.

"We want you to see the whole picture of Kaboni Savage," defense attorney William Purpura had told the jury.

The penalty phase hearing is expected to conclude tomorrow. Jury deliberations likely will begin Wednesday following closing arguments and a charge by Judge R. Barclay Surrick on the legal issues involved. Under federal law, the jury must unanimously decide that a death sentence is warranted and then must unanimously agree that it should be imposed.

The other option is life with no parole. Savage is already serving a 30-year sentence following a conviction in 2005 for drug trafficking. He has been described as one of the biggest and most violent cocaine kingpins in North Philadelphia. "Pure evil," said a high ranking Philadelphia police official when Savage was charged in the current case.

In what was clearly an uphill battle, his court-appointed attorneys, Purpura and Christian Hoey, called nearly a dozen witnesses last week, including prison experts and legal scholars. Their testimony was aimed at blunting some of the sharper edges presented by the prosecution.

Savage, for example, would if sentenced to life probably spent the rest of his days in the maximum security unit of the super-max federal prison in Florence, Colorado, the so-called Alcatraz of the Rockies. The chances of him trying to direct revenge against witnesses and their families from that facility is highly unlikely, indeed, nearly impossible, according to that expert testimony.

The defense also offered testimony on the "culture" of snitching in urban America, trying to point out that Savage was not a trail-blazer in his rants against cooperators, but was merely echoing the common perception of that snitches will say whatever the prosecution wants to hear in order to cut a better deal for themselves.

Defense witnesses included Alexandra Natapoff, a lawyer and scholar and the author of "Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice."

But it was Kaboni Savage's own words that the defense attorneys hoped would have the greatest impact on death penalty deliberations.

Ironically, they used some of the same secretly recorded conversations that were part of the FBI's 10-year investigation to offer the jury a more humane defendant. Key elements were Savage's relationship with his daughter and with other young members of his extended family.

"They have a bond with each other that is unbreakable," said Crystal Copeland, Siani's mother and Savage's girlfriend of nearly 18 years. The couple, she said from the witness stand, were living together, planning to get married and hoping for other children when he was arrested in 2004.

Copeland, who has two masters degrees in education and works for the Philadelphia school district, testified as a defense witness during the trial and again last week during the penalty phase. She described Kaboni Savage as a "kind and caring" father and a loving companion who made her laugh.

She said her daughter, now 13, misses her father.

"He has been her hero," she said, her voice cracking. "It's been difficult for her not having him around."

Copeland, who maintained her composure and exuded self-confidence during her first appearance on the stand during the trial, broke down as she testified about her daughter during the penalty phase of the case.

"She doesn't want to function without him," she said, adding that Savage has always emphasized in his phone calls and letters the need for a good education. Her daughter, she said, is an A-student.

"Her goal in life is to make him proud," she said between sobs.

The last conversation with jury heard between Kaboni and Siani Savage was recorded on Sept. 30, 2004.

Again, Savage's voice was soft, almost melodious, as he spoke to his daughter.

"You can't paint your toe nails and then put your socks on," he said with a laugh as Siani could be heard giggling.

"I love you," he said.

"I love you too," the little voice replied.

"I miss you."

"I miss you, too."

Savage has two daughters and a son by three different women, according to testimony. Siani is the youngest. She is friendly with her half-sister and half-brother, her mother said. Savage had another daughter, Ciara, who was killed in 2009 when she was caught in a cross-fire between drug gangs in York, Pa. She was nine years old at the time.

The jury also heard from Yusef Kaboni Savage, the 19-year-old son of Conchetta Savage, the defendant's older sister. While Kaboni Savage is Yusef's uncle, the teenager said he was more like a father.

In fact, the Penn State University student said he refers to Kaboni Savage as "dad." While he has been unable to visit him in prison because visits are restricted to biological children, Yusef Savage said he and his uncle have corresponded and that his uncle has always encouraged him to do well in school and to further his education.

During his time of the witness stand the defense introduced a certificate that Yusef had obtained for his uncle while he was in grammar school. Yusef testified that when he was nine he wrote an essay about his uncle, describing him as the person who had had the greatest positive impact on his life. Among other things, he said, his uncle taught him to read the newspaper when he was just five years old and encouraged him in sports and in school.

The certificate, with large letters declaring CONGRATULATIONS, was introduced as evidence and as another possible mitigating factor.

Prosecutors, as expected, were low-key in their cross-examination of Crystal Copeland and Yusef Savage. But they did manage to make a potentially devastating point with the jury.

Kaboni Savage's last phone call with his daughter came just nine days before the firebombing in which the family of Eugene Coleman was killed. The victims including Coleman's mother, his step-sister, his 15-month old son, two nephews, aged 15 and 12, and a niece, age 10.

Coleman, a Savage associate who had begun cooperating, was in jail at the time. His family was targeted, prosecutors said, in retaliation. 

A month after that arson, according to another tape played for the jury, Kaboni Savage joked about the fire and said authorities should have provided Coleman with "barbecue sauce" to pour on those "burnt bitches" when he attended their funerals.

The certificate obtained by Yusef Savage was dated Dec. 8, 2004, two months after the arson.

The next day, according to another tape recorded  conversations, Savage was in prison ranting about cooperators, vowing to kill more of their children.

"Their kids gonna pay for making my kids cry," he said. "I want to smack one of their four-year-old sons in he head with a bat...Straight up. I have dreams about killing theirs kids...Killing their kids. Cutting their kids' heads off."

Whether Kaboni Savage is sentenced to death or life in prison may depend on whether any of the jurors believe the loving comments of a gentle father trump the rants and raves of a homicidal drug kingpin. Savage's own words were used to convict him and now those same words could determine whether he lives or dies.  

George Anastasia can be contacted at

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