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'Kill for Thrill' murderer John Lesko's conviction, death sentence for 1980 spree upheld

Torsten Ove, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in News & Features

John Lesko, on Pennsylvania's death row for the "Kill for Thrill" murders 42 years ago, won't get a new trial or a new sentencing hearing. The 3rd U.S. Circuit of Appeals this week rejected his bid for both.

Lesko is on death row for the 1980 killing of 21-year-old rookie Apollo police Officer Leonard Miller. Lesko and his criminal partner, Michael Travaglia, were later charged in a series of three other murders that the media dubbed the "Kill for Thrill" spree.

Travaglia is dead, but Lesko, 64, has continued to appeal in Pennsylvania's courts and in the federal court system.

In his latest attempt, he raised 22 claims challenging his 1981 conviction and his 1995 resentencing.

The main argument was that his then-lawyer, Rabe Marsh, was ineffective in advising him not to testify on his own behalf, in not requesting Lesko's juvenile records, and in not having Lesko undergo a medical exam for brain damage.

U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon had refused to grant him relief, and on Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the 3rd Circuit agreed with her.

Judges D. Michael Fisher, Cheryl Ann Krause and Jane Roth ruled that Lesko's conviction and sentence will be upheld, although Judge Roth dissented in part on the brain damage issue.


Although the other judges said Mr. Marsh was not ineffective, she said he should have pursued evidence of Lesko's mental ability.

"The horror of the crimes committed in no way cut off either Lesko's right to effective counsel or the defense attorney's duty to present mitigating evidence," she wrote. "Because of Marsh's delay in obtaining and reviewing records and in consulting (a medical expert) and because of Marsh's failure to follow up on the mitigating issue of brain damage, clearly his trial preparation was not reasonable. It was ineffective."

She said Lesko should get a new sentencing hearing. But majority rules, so he won't.

Lesko and Travaglia were convicted of killing four people: Peter Levato, 49; Marlene Newcomer, 26; William Nicholls, 32; and Officer Miller.

Both were sentenced to death. Travaglia died in prison in 2017. Lesko is housed at SCI-Phoenix in Montgomery County.

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