Washington County jurors deliberated for about 90 minutes before convicting a former Washington man of first-degree murder in the fatal shooting of Matthew Mathias six years ago.
The case against Brandon Wolowski, 24, now enters the penalty phase, when jurors will decide whether or not Wolowski should be executed for the Jan. 8, 2013, death of the 37-year-old victim. Police said Wolowski fatally shot the older man and wounded Michelle Powell, Mathias' girlfriend, during a failed attempt to steal Mathias' gun collection from the victims' house in Washington's West End neighborhood.
Jurors returned the verdict following three days of testimony that started Monday. They heard closing arguments early Thursday afternoon before receiving instructions from Common Pleas Judge John F. DiSalle. The panel of six men and six women also convicted Wolowski on charges of attempted homicide, aggravated assault and robbery filed by city police.
Prosecutors will have the burden of convincing jurors that a death sentence is warranted based on two aggravating factors they claim are present – that Wolowski created a "grave risk" to Powell and that he killed Mathias in the course of a felony.
District Attorney Gene Vittone said his office won't discuss the case until the penalty phase is over.
DiSalle told jurors to return this morning for the start of that proceeding.
Noah Geary, Wolowski's court-appointed lead attorney, similarly declined comment.
As he sat next to his client, he placed his hand on the back of Wolowski, who'd been handcuffed by sheriff's deputies following the verdict on the murder conviction.
Key to the prosecution's case were a taped statement Wolowski gave to city police Lt. Daniel Stanek, the lead investigator, in the hours after police found him at another man's apartment near the main crime scene and testimony from Powell, 45, who said Wolowski had brought crack cocaine to the house for the couple to smoke before he pulled a gun and demanded Mathias' firearms.
Terrance Cohen Jr. testified he was at his father's house next to the building where police found Wolowski. Cohen said Wolowski showed up that night and asked him to hold onto a handgun for him. Police later matched the .38-caliber revolver to a bullet that struck Powell.
Mathias left through the front door. His body was found outside in the yard. Powell fled out the front door and across the street to a neighbor's, where a 911 call was made.
Powell testified that Wolowski was the only other person she saw in the couple's house on the 900 block of Fayette Street during the robbery-shooting.
But Geary argued that police didn't adequately eliminate other possible suspects who could have been present that night. In his taped statement, Wolowski, who was 18 at the time, admitted to repeatedly shooting a gun at the house, but referred to an accomplice who may have also fired one. No one else was charged.
During his closing argument, Geary called his client the "government's sacrificial lamb."
"Don't let him be yours," Geary added. "Don't be a part of it."
He told jurors they'd later have doubts if they convicted his client.
Deputy District Attorney Leslie Ridge said details of Wolowski's account of events were consistent with Powell's testimony and helped show his guilt in a premeditated killing.
"The confession is reliable because it is detailed, it is specific, and it is corroborated by the other evidence that you heard during this trial," she said.
Ridge contended Wolowski fired on the couple as part of a plan to raise at least $1,200 he needed for rent after getting an eviction notice. Geary pointed to testimony from Larry McElhaney, Wolowski's girlfriend's father, to dispute that the money was a motive. McElhaney said he planned to cover the rent.
Among the factors Geary said weighed against conviction was a lack of photos and measurements of shoe prints in the snow outside the house. He said that information would have helped settle the question of who'd been there that night.
He said police didn't seek corroboration of other portions – like when Wolowkski claimed he'd called his younger brother to ask for an alibi – through things like phone records.
Ridge said there was "no evidence of all these guns going off." To address one hypothesis to which Geary alluded, she said Mathias was ruled out as a shooter because all of his firearms were locked in a safe that wasn't opened until investigators obtained a search warrant days later.
She said the defense had failed to advance a convincing alternative version of events.
"I'll be honest with you," Ridge said. "I'm not sure what their theory is."
Wolowski didn't testify. Geary told jurors it was their duty not to hold that against his client.
The prosecution finished presenting its case on Wednesday before court recessed. Wolowski's lawyers said they planned to call "several witnesses" to testify the next day.
But on Thursday morning, nothing happened in open court for about two hours while the sides' respective attorneys conferred with each other and the judge until shortly before noon. At that point, Wolowski was escorted into the courtroom and joined by the various lawyers.
No more witnesses were called. Geary simply told the judge, "The defense rests."
A Washington County jury last recommended a death sentence in 2015. Gov. Tom Wolf has declared what he calls a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania.