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After 38 years on death row, Philly man gets new trial - and another guilty verdict

Prosecutors said it was a straightforward case: On Feb. 22, 1979, Robert Lark put on a ski mask, stuffed a gun in his belt, walked into a fast-food store at Broad and Erie, and shot dead the store owner, Tae Bong Cho, a 36-year-old father of two.

Robert Lark, left, and during his arrest in 1980.
Robert Lark, left, and during his arrest in 1980.Read moreInquirer archives

It took 32 years of legal filings from his cell on death row, but Robert "Sugar Bear" Lark finally got a new trial.

On Friday, the jury delivered its verdict. Guilty. Again.

Prosecutors said it was a straightforward case. On Feb. 22, 1979, Lark put on a ski mask, stuffed a gun in his belt, walked into a fast-food store at Broad Street and Erie Avenue, and shot dead the store owner, Tae Bong Cho, a 36-year-old father of two. The slaying was the night before a preliminary hearing for Lark, who had robbed Cho at gunpoint months earlier.

"He killed him in a brazen manner, and then he boasted about it," Assistant District Attorney Andrew Notaristefano said in his closing argument.

The defense argued that Philadelphia police detectives systematically provided incentives and threats to induce witnesses to talk. Some had open cases or probation violations when they testified.

"They were handpicked," Lark's court-appointed lawyer, James Berardinelli said. "What made someone an elite detective back in 1979 when Frank Rizzo was still mayor was a heck of a lot different from what makes an elite detective today."

The jury, which found the prosecutor's version of events to be credible, will now have to decide whether Lark, 63, will face the death penalty once again. Given a statewide moratorium and the stances of the candidates running for district attorney here, some are calling it the last death-penalty case in Philadelphia.

It was Lark's third trial: The first resulted in a mistrial, the second in a conviction. His charges included not only the murder of Cho but also the kidnapping of a woman and her two children – he escaped into their house before police captured him and remained there for two hours – and terroristic threats against Charles Cunningham, the prosecutor in Lark's robbery case.

But in 2012, he won the right to yet another trial, after persuading a federal judge that the prosecutor had stricken black jurors simply because of their race — a practice that is illegal but was standard operating procedure for Philadelphia prosecutors, according to a training tape of former Assistant District Attorney Jack McMahon that became public in the '90s. Half the jury for this trial was black.

Proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt 38 years after the fact – when some witnesses are dead and others' memories have faded – was a complicated matter.

For those witnesses who are now deceased, testimony had to be reenacted — the prosecutor, defense lawyer, and judge all reading lines along with an actor in the witness box.

Some other witnesses, brought in from out of state and, in at least one case, from federal prison, adamantly contradicted the testimony they gave at the previous trials in the 1980s.

One, Linda Timbers, who is the mother of Lark's daughter, said the statement police had taken in 1980 was false. According to the statement, she'd been with Lark waiting in line for a movie when a man named Stanley Coleman came up and discussed the murder with Lark. She said that Lark had never taken her to a movie, that she did not know a Stanley Coleman, and that she had not heard about the murder.

"If somebody talked to me bragging about a killing, I would remember that," she said. If she did sign a statement, she insisted, it was out of exhaustion. "It seems like I wasn't going to be able to go home with my children to get something to eat unless I signed it."

Another witness, James Spencer, previously testified that Lark had boasted to him about the murder, but he recanted that statement on the stand. A third testified he now has no memory of the events. A fourth gave similar testimony; she said she was a drug addict desperate to get out of the interrogation room and get her next fix when she made her statement to police.

The defense argued those recantations were clear evidence that the earlier testimony had been tainted — either by prosecutors' promises to offer lenient treatment on open cases or by police threats of implication in the case.

For example, Spencer was facing four open cases; two were thrown out after he testified. "This is someone who had a motive to fabricate," Berardinelli said.

Notaristefano, on the other hand, said Spencer's recantation was further proof of Lark's campaign of terror: Spencer, he said, "has to take the witness stand so he can recant everything in public in front of the defendant, so that his family can be safe."

The jury will be back on Tuesday to determine whether Lark will return to death row.

Prosecutors offered to take the death penalty off the table if Lark would waive his right to appeal. But as Judge Steven R. Geroff stated the offer, Lark interjected.

"I reject that," he said.

He wants to keep fighting the case.