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Slain Rite Aid manager’s widow: DA’s Office led her to believe ‘no option’ but life in prison for killer

After defendant Christopher Kennedy was resentenced to life in prison last week, the victim's wife told The Inquirer that the DA's Office never told her it could have fought for Kennedy to stay on death row.

Kristi Richardson looks at photos of her husband, Michael Richardson, at her home on Friday, March 15, 2019.
Kristi Richardson looks at photos of her husband, Michael Richardson, at her home on Friday, March 15, 2019.Read moreJULIE SHAW / Staff

The wife of a slain Rite Aid store manager whose killer had his death sentence lifted last week in favor of life in prison without parole is saying she was misled by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office when it willfully abandoned seeking the death penalty during a resentencing hearing last week.

Kristi Richardson said she told prosecutors she wanted Christopher Kennedy to remain on death row for the slaying of her husband, Michael, during a 2003 robbery. Kennedy had won a new sentencing hearing on appeal.

“I was just led to believe there was no option,” Richardson, 47, said Friday in the dining room of her Philadelphia home, where she keeps framed photographs of her husband with his then-young kids hanging on the walls.

Assistant District Attorney Paul George, assistant supervisor of the office’s law division, led her to believe that the death penalty was not an option, she said.

“He was really nice to me,” she said of George. But she said he caused her to believe that “I couldn’t fight it,” that the “death penalty will eventually be taken off the table,” and that “all [death-penalty] cases are going to be life sentences" in Pennsylvania.

On Wednesday, Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina resentenced Kennedy to life in prison without parole and ordered that he be removed from death row after the District Attorney’s Office said it would no longer pursue the death penalty in his case.

"I am upset. It makes me mad he’s no longer on death row. It’s sickening,” Richardson said two days later.

Kennedy, now 36, killed Michael Richardson, a father of five who managed a store at 12th Street and Girard Avenue in North Philadelphia, during a robbery on Jan. 19, 2003.

Kennedy first shot Richardson in a leg, then dragged him through the store and into the office, leaving a bloody trail, according to then-Assistant District Attorney Tom Malone, who presented those details in his closing argument as one of two prosecutors at the 2004 trial. After forcing Richardson to open a safe containing about $2,200, Kennedy put a .44-caliber Magnum revolver to Richardson’s head and shot him execution-style as Richardson, 35, prayed and begged for his life.

Jurors, who wept during the trial, convicted Kennedy, of North Philadelphia, of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death.

Sarmina granted the hearing after Kennedy’s current attorney, Karl Schwartz, contended that Kennedy received ineffective counsel during the penalty phase of his 2004 trial. During this month’s evidentiary hearing, Schwartz said Monday, he presented about 20 witnesses who testified to the “unimaginable abuse, neglect, abandonment, and, really, torture” that Kennedy had suffered from a young age that “the sentencing jury never heard.”

Both George and a victim-services coordinator from the District Attorney’s Office told her that they didn’t want her to have to deal with more appeals from Kennedy, Richardson said.

“I told them, ‘I don’t mind being notified of his appealing the death penalty,’ ” she said. “I didn’t want him to get off death row. Now I feel like he’s getting off easy.”

George did not respond to messages seeking comment. George, like District Attorney Larry Krasner a former criminal defense attorney, has advocated against the death penalty for clients including Linda Ann Weston, the ringleader of a decade-long scheme that kept mentally disabled people hostage at locations including a Tacony sub-basement. (After Weston agreed to plead guilty to murder, hate crimes, and related offenses, the government agreed not to seek the death penalty against her.)

Told Monday of Kristi Richardson’s comments, Krasner’s spokesperson Ben Waxman replied by email that the decision to vacate the death sentence was Sarmina’s and resulted from a claim of ineffective counsel.

“And, although we agreed to life, we continue to insist that defendant is not entitled to a new trial and that the appropriate sentence is life without parole,” Waxman wrote. “Ms. Richardson made clear to our office in a variety of ways that she preferred the defendant remain on death row. We respect her right to that opinion.”

Waxman said Richardson “was offered the opportunity to participate in the hearing last week.”

“That is wrong,” Richardson said Monday. She said she was “blindsided” when the judge asked her in court Wednesday if she wanted to say anything because she hadn’t been prepared by George to do so.

“It was almost like everything was scripted,” she said. “The DA said their part. They knew what their outcome would be.”

Krasner’s office has been accused of being less than transparent with victims or their families about the steps it could take on matters that significantly impact court decisions.

Richardson said she had sent a letter to the district attorney’s victims-services unit last year after being told of Kennedy’s most recent appeal. In it, she expressed her desire for the judicial system to follow through with the jury’s decision on the death penalty. She said Friday that she did not know whether the judge received a copy of her letter.

She recalled how she had met her future husband when he worked at a Woolworth store in Germantown and she worked at nearby Gaffney Fabrics. She asked him to her prom at the Philadelphia High School for Girls.

They married two years later, when she was 19 and he 23.

Three accomplices to the fatal robbery — Jamaar Richardson, now 37, who had worked at the Rite Aid; James Richardson, now 38; and Lavar Brown, now 41 — were convicted of second-degree murder and received mandatory sentences of life in prison. The Richardson brothers are not related to the victim.

Brown was arrested in December 2003 when he fatally shot a man he mistakenly thought could link him to the Rite Aid robbery, Malone said Monday. He was sentenced to death for that shooting. Krasner’s office last April filed a motion saying Brown should leave death row. The state Supreme Court, however, disagreed and Brown remains in death row.

The Richardsons had celebrated their 12th wedding anniversary on Jan. 15, 2003, four days before Kennedy executed him. “We were talking about getting old together,” recalled Kristi Richardson, who has since moved from their Crescentville home.

“He lit up the room,” she said. “For me, it was love at first sight.”