Should Kaboni Savage live or die?
He should die, a prosecutor told a federal jury Tuesday, because he so wantonly slaughtered children, witnesses and others, because he laughed about it and vowed that even prison wouldn't stop him from plotting more deaths.
"The fight don't stop til the casket drop," was his mantra, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Troyer said.
The violent drug kingpin should live, Savage's lawyer countered, because his past was shaped by tragedy in a North Philadelphia neighborhood overrun by crime and drugs, and because even a life spent in solitary confinment in a tiny windowless cell could make a difference.
"Despite that cement box, there could be some good, some light that comes out," lawyer William Purpura said.
Those were the options outlined for jurors Tuesday as they began weighing the penalty against Savage, who they convicted last week of 12 murders, including the 2004 North Philadelphia rowhouse firebombing that killed four children and two adult relatives of a witness against him.
The sentencing phase, expected to last at least a week, will unfold with arguments and evidence like a mini-trial, U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick told the panel. But the structure and the legal standards are different.
First, the nine women and three men must decide if each of Savage's crimes are so egregious and meet aggravating conditions to make them worthy of the death penalty. Then they must unanimously vote if he deserves it.
If Savage, 38, is troubled by his fate, he chose not to show it. During nearly two hours of courtroom oration, as one lawyer pleaded for his death and another described how miserable his life will be in a windowless 8 by 10-foot box, he sat nearly still as a statue with his head propped on a fist.
Clad in a green prison uniform, he aimed his gaze down even as Purpura talked about his father's death, and showed jurors the funeral notice that Savage got in prison to learn that his 9-year-old daughter was killed by an errant bullet in 2009.
Federal prosecutors in Philadelphia have brought capital cases a half-dozen times in the past two decades, and none have ended with a defendant getting the death penalty. Troyer, who led the prosecution in the three-month trial, acknowledged that the punishment is reserved only for the most heinous crimes and the worst offenders.
"That is this case," he said. "Kaboni Savage is that offender."
The hearing, he said, will include references to much of the testimony and evidence that jurors heard during the trial. But some information will be new, and highlight a key component: that Savage would remain a danger to society even if locked away for life.
Savage ordered seven murders from prison, Troyer noted, including the October 2004 firebombing that killed the mother, 15-month-old son and four other relatives of a FBI cooperating witness, Eugene Coleman.
And even while he was supposed to be in restrictive federal custody, Savage found a way to make months of undetected personal calls on a line reserved for legal calls, the prosecutor said. He also devised a way for friends to send letters that appeared as if they were from his lawyer and thus, couldn't be read by prison officials.
And he repeated for jurors some of the choicest quotes Savage was heard to say in prison, vowing to use all his energy to kill his enemies, their mothers and children.
"Prison is not, I submit, a place where all of society is free from Kaboni Savage's wrath," Troyer said.
The hearing is just as likely to include new information from Savage's defense team, biding to save his life. The trial focused on his crimes, Purpura said. Now jurors will hear "the whole picture of Kaboni Savage."
Purpura said he'll call witnesses to show that Savage and his family lost their guiding force and livelihood when Savage's father died of lung cancer. At age 13, Savage suddenly became the man of the house, succummed to the violence and drugs that ringed their Hunting Park neighborhood and found a new mentor in drug trafficker Gerald Thomas.
He said jurors will hear from or about Savage's children and his nephew, a college student whom Savage has encouraged to lead a positive and law-abiding life.
"I've done enough negativity for all of us," Savage wrote the young man.
The lawyer said he will also ask jurors to compare Savage's fate to that of Lamont Lewis, the man who has admitted firebombing the Coleman home and othe murders in return for a prison term of 40 years to life.
Jurors are expected to get the case sometime next week. After their ruling, they will begin an identical hearing for Savage's codefendant, Steven Northington, who was convicted in two of the murders.
The other two defendants in the case, Robert Merritt Jr. and Savage's younger sister Kidada face up to life in prison in sentencing hearings later this year.