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Murder Most Foul: My Most Famous and Interesting Murder Prosecutions

May 08, 2009

It was a tour de force. Richard A. Sprague, L’53, grand inquisitor, fierce competitor and Philadelphia’s preeminent trial lawyer, gave a lecture last March that seemed more like a clinic on how to prosecute a murder case. Making the classroom his courtroom, he recounted the hard investigative work, the skillful presentation of witnesses and the courtroom choreography that leads to conviction.

In short, he killed.
 
Speaking to a capacity crowd attending an installment in the Dean’s Speakers Series [watch the video], Sprague ranged over his 50-year career, recalling his lead role in everything from a test of the insanity defense to a congressional investigation of the Kennedy assassination to the murder of Joseph “Jock”  Yablonski by United Mine Workers president Tony Boyle.
 
Talking to the audience as if it were a jury, Sprague unraveled the evidence in the Boyle case, a multiyear odyssey which remains his most famous. Yablonski was Boyle’s bitter rival. He had run against Boyle and contested his election – which led to his gangland-style execution in western Pennsylvania.  
 
Sprague, who was the prosecuting attorney, recalled in vivid detail the night of Dec. 31, 1969, when Yablonski, his wife and daughter were killed by hitmen.
 
Three men watched the house until the lights went out. First they cut electric wires and phone lines and deflated car tires. Then they walked upstairs in stocking feet and slayed three members of the family. Several days later, according to Sprague, investigators found a yellow legal pad. Written on it was CX457 Chevrolet and Paul Gilly, painter, Cleveland, Ohio. Yablonski had written this down after following a suspicious vehicle carrying men who had knocked on his door but left when they saw he had company.
 
Sprague said this note proved crucial in helping him peel back layer after layer in the case. It led to the convictions of three hired killers, to a confession from a UMW employee and to guilty verdicts of co-conspirators including Tony Boyle, who died in prison.
 
Sprague went on to describe another of his well-known cases: the murder of Jack Lopinson’s business partner and wife in the basement of Dante’s Inferno, a Philadelphia restaurant frequented by the mob. As Sprague recounted, Lopinson, co-owner of the restaurant, hired a psychopath with mafia ties, Frank “Birdman” Phelan, for the job. Lopinson intended to kill the hitman after he committed the murders, thus becoming a hero and launching a bid for the Pennsylvania state legislature. But, sensing a plot, Phelan shot Lopinson in the leg before the restaurateur could carry out his plan, and then snitched on him.
 
Before the trial, Phelan had second thoughts about testifying, because he feared he would look like a “weak sister.” Sprague said he solved that problem by promising Phelan the death sentence in return for his cooperation. Phelan endured three days of cross-examination and the case turned on his testimony.
 
Phelan later unsuccessfully challenged his conviction for first degree murder and conspiracy to murder, declaring he was mentally incompetent to stand trial. Lopinson was convicted and died in prison.
 
Sprague also discussed the ultimate murder case: the Kennedy assassination. After years as a celebrated prosecutor in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, Sprague was appointed chief counsel of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which reopened the investigations into the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
 
Sprague said he followed leads on the Kennedy assassination that placed his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, in the company of a CIA agent days before the murder. But, Sprague said, the Warren Commission dismissed this version of events, saying Oswald was visiting the Cuban embassy in Mexico City that day.
 
Further, the Commission claimed it had photos and a tape of a conversation Oswald had with the Russian embassy. Sprague said he asked for photos, the tape and a transcription, but was stonewalled at every turn, at which point the chairman of the committee asked Sprague to stop the investigation.
Sprague said he does not know if the CIA was involved, but the case raised a lot of interesting questions.