Three decades after the 1988 murder of West Palm Beach Police Officer Brian Chappell, the lawyers of his killer, Norberto “Spiderman” Pietri, cited a 15-month-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling to try to get Pietri off death row.
It didn’t work.
At the end of a hearing that lasted only about a half hour, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge John Kastrenakes rattled off how Pietri escaped prison, killed Chappell — who “didn’t even get his gun out” — and continued to commit violent crimes until he was recaptured. Kastrenakes said he was convinced Pietri’s death sentence “was absolutely appropriate.”
William M. Hennis III, attorney for the state agency that defends death row inmates, said the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring unanimous jury votes to invoke the death penalty should apply to Pietri, whom a jury had sentenced to death by an 8-4 vote. Kastrenakes noted that the jury unanimously found Pietri guilty of escape, burglary and murder of a law enforcement officer, aggravating factors that he said rightly triggered the death penalty.
Assistant Attorney General Leslie Campbell told the judge that courts have ruled no cases decided before 2002 should be revisited in light of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
But Hennis argued that the “unanimous” standard really should apply to all cases retroactively. He said after the hearing that whether the 2002 cutoff “will stand up to federal scrutiny remains to be seen.”
Hennis also said after the hearing he wasn’t surprised by Kastrenakes’ ruling but would appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.
Pietri, who turned 54 this month, was not in the courtroom Thursday. But dozens of police officers — active duty and retired — were. They filled virtually every seat and some stood against the wall. Some had been kids — or not even born — on Aug. 22, 1988. Some had been there that day, and still remember it with pain.
“All I can say is the judge knew his law,” said John Conklin, now retired, who was the lead detective.
Chappell, 31 and in his sixth year as a West Palm Beach officer, had initiated a traffic stop on Dixie Highway just south of Southern Boulevard and followed the car as it turned onto a side street, Malverne Road. . As Chappell walked to the driver side window, Pietri, then 25 and nicknamed “Spiderman” for the 3-inch spider tattoo on his neck, fired once with a 9mm semiautomatic pistol.
“I grabbed the gun, stuck my head out the window and shot,” Pietri later testified.
The bullet tore through Chappell’s chest. He staggered back, grabbed his portable radio and spoke his last four words: “Officer shot. Officer shot.”
Pietri had walked away four days earlier from the since-closed minimum-security Lantana Community Correctional Center. And he was caught two days later, the day before Chappell was buried.
Pietri was sentenced to death row on March 15, 1990.
Leaving the courtroom Thursday, West Palm Beach Police Chief Sarah Mooney called Kastrenakes’ ruling “right on the money.”
At the time of the shooting, Mooney was starting college, although her future husband was on the force.
“It’s way too long that the family and the guys who used to work with him have to still keep revisiting this,” she said Thursday.
For years, Chappell’s parents came to hearings for Pietri. Tom Chappell said in 2006 that the loss of his son “is something we think about every day.” Asked if he could forgive his son’s killer, Chappell said, “I would forgive him if he would bring my son back.”
The elder Chappell feared his son’s murderer would outlive him, and Pietri did. Tom Chappell died at 94 in October 2014.
Pietri is one of 372 people on Florida’s death row and one of seven there who were convicted for Palm Beach County murders. He is ranked 69th of the 372 in terms of longevity. The oldest death penalty tenure is 42 years.
On Thursday, Kastrenakes put the long Chappell-Pietri saga in perspective right at the start of the hearing.
“Here we find ourselves 30 years after Officer Chappell was murdered, and still discussing whether Mr. Pietri should be subject to the death penalty or not,” the judge said. “These cases never seem to end.”