The epic, 15-week courtroom postmortem on the June 5, 2013, Center City building collapse that killed six people and injured 13 others drew to a close Wednesday in a marathon oratorical duel between two of Philadelphia's toughest litigators.
Legendary lawyer Richard A. Sprague, 91, hobbled to a lectern inside a City Hall courtroom and for the next 90 minutes, in a manner by turns folksy and sarcastic, worked to convince a Common Pleas Court jury that his 91-year-old client, New York real estate speculator Richard Basciano, and his STB Investments Corp. should not be held liable for the deaths and injuries in the collapse.
"There's nobody in this case that wanted anybody to die," Sprague told the civil jury of seven men and five women. "Say what you want about them, it's clear that whatever it was that they did, it was not trying to harm people."
Sprague was followed to the lectern by Robert J. Mongeluzzi, 60, a plaintiffs' litigator who specializes in representing victims of accidents and disasters, who spent an equal amount of time rebutting the arguments of Sprague and the lawyers for four other defendants.
Sprague seemed modest and self-deprecating, never mentioning his 63-year career as a city prosecutor, special prosecutor, investigator of the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and defense attorney.
Mongeluzzi, however, had none of it.
"When it was time for STB and Mr. Basciano to protect the public by choosing an experienced, licensed, and safe contractor, they chose the inexperienced, unlicensed contractor Griffin Campbell," Mongeluzzi said.
"When it came time to come into this courtroom to protect themselves, they chose the legendary Dick Sprague," Mongeluzzi added.
The heat inside cavernous Courtroom 653 was stifling, but about 250 spectators packed the room and stayed there for the chance to watch the two litigators in action.
After Wednesday's final closing speeches, Judge M. Teresa Sarmina gave the jurors and alternates - only one alternate has left since the trial started Sept. 19 - Thursday and Friday off.
The jurors will return Monday, when Sarmina will instruct them in the law relevant to the case. Then they will begin deliberating to decide which, if any, defendants should be held liable for money damages in the collapse.
In the first half of 2013, Basciano was in the middle of demolishing a series of rundown, vacant commercial buildings in the 2100 block of Market Street in preparation for what he testified would be his "dream" - a twin-tower residential-commercial complex.
By the morning of June 5, 2013, Basciano's demolition was down to his four-story Hoagie City building, which shared a wall with the squat, one-story Salvation Army thrift store on the corner.
Already more than a month behind his deadline for finishing, Campbell, a North Philadelphia demolition contractor, brought in a 36,000-pound excavator to speed the process on the weekend before the collapse.
That morning, as the excavator worked away and shoppers filled the thrift store for its sale day, an unsupported three- to four-story brick wall fell and crushed the store.
The six people were killed instantly; one of the 13 injured died 23 days later. The civil trial involves a score of lawsuits filed afterward.
Basciano had not been in court since October, when the plaintiffs' lawyers called him as a witness and the onetime boxer and bricklayer broke down in tears, saying he was "brokenhearted" about the people killed and injured.
On Wednesday, Basciano, frail-looking and needing a cane and an aide to move about, listened to Sprague through headphones. He left before Mongeluzzi finished his rebuttal.
Behind Basciano sat two rows of uniformed members of the Salvation Army's high command. The religious charity, whose U.S. branch opened in Philadelphia in 1879, was sued because its officers purportedly ignored warnings from Basciano's top aide, Thomas Simmonds, of danger and a possible collapse.
Simmonds sent the email warnings to the Salvation Army command in West Nyack, N.Y., during negotiations in mid-May 2013 to give demolition workers access to the thrift store roof.
While the two sides talked, demolition continued at Hoagie City until the disaster.
Charity officers said that they didn't believe Simmonds' warnings, that they considered them "hyperbole" and bullying, and that city officials concurred.
Mongeluzzi, however, argued that Simmonds' warnings became reality and the Salvation Army should have at least investigated them and monitored the site.
Earlier Wednesday in his closing, Salvation Army lawyer John J. Snyder told the jury that the charity was blameless in the building collapse.
Snyder referred repeatedly to the Salvation Army's history of helping the poor, the homeless, and the addicted.
He argued that the charity's reputation was impossible to reconcile with what plaintiffs' lawyers called a callous, uncaring organization that would ignore danger warnings and let employees and customers enter a doomed building.
"Do you think that's what the Salvation Army is about?" Snyder asked the jury.
Snyder called the plaintiffs' claim "bull, and we all know it."
In a loud, often emotional 100-minute speech, Snyder repeatedly accused the plaintiffs' lawyers of making up claims to bring the charity into the civil trial.
"It's hard to listen to these allegations against these fine people," Snyder said, his voice cracking, "and to hear and see what they've been subjected to."
In his rebuttal, Mongeluzzi compared the Salvation Army's defense to Basciano's and cited what he said were payments of "hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars" to expert witnesses to testify in support of the charity's defense.
"They did it to protect themselves, but they didn't do it to protect the public and their employees," Mongeluzzi told the jury. "You have to ask yourself: Why didn't they do it then, and why are they doing it now?"
In addition to Basciano and the Salvation Army, those sued are Center City architect Plato A. Marinakos Jr., STB's architect hired to monitor demolition; Campbell; Sean Benschop, the excavator operator whom Campbell hired to demolish the four-story Hoagie City building; and Jack Higgins, an architect from northeastern Pennsylvania whom the Salvation Army hired to catalog the thrift store's condition to prove later claims for demolition-related damage.
Both Campbell and Benschop were convicted of involuntary manslaughter, are serving long prison terms, and are considered penniless.
Earlier Wednesday, Marinakos' attorney, Neil P. Clain Jr., asked the jury to exonerate his client of liability for the collapse.
Marinakos was hired by Basciano and Simmonds to recommend a demolition contractor for the project and to monitor progress and recommend periodic payments.
The lawsuits maintain that Marinakos had no experience in demolition but made himself the de facto project manager. The suits contend that he recommended an incompetent contractor and suggested bringing in the excavator to speed demolition.
Clain, however, said the contractor and his excavator operator caused the collapse.
"He was an adviser," Clain told the jury. "He wasn't in charge of the project, he wasn't the boss. He gave advice [to Basciano and Simmonds] - they didn't follow it."
That defense was mocked by Sprague, who said the naive and financially strapped Campbell was "used and seduced" into the project by Marinakos with a lure of lucrative contracts to come.
Sprague reminded the jury that after the collapse, Marinakos got a lawyer and obtained a prosecution immunity deal for testifying against Campbell and Benschop.
Sprague argued that the District Attorney's Office should have immunized Campbell and prosecuted Marinakos.
"He got a free pass out of jail from the DA's Office, which was wrong," Sprague told the jury. "He's asking for a free pass out of court from you. Don't give him that pass."