Wednesday, October 26, 2011
In the basement of a house in the Fox Chase neighborhood of Philadelphia, a chalkboard still keeps the tally of the pool games Eddie Polec played with his father. They were tied, 5-5, more than a year ago when Eddie was beaten to death with baseball bats on the steps of his church at the age of 16.
The killing still haunts many people in the deeply religious community in the northeast section of the city.
I think people still don't believe it," Eddie's mother, Kathy Polec, said on Thursday. "People still walk up and hug you and say: 'It can't be real. It couldn't have been Ed.' "
There have been memorial services, youth counseling sessions and the regular ritual of laying flowers on the church steps. But Eddie's friends and family members say the real recovery will not begin until after the trial of the seven youths accused of killing him, which begins here on Tuesday.
The seven are charged with murder in what the authorities have called one of the most brutal crimes in Philadelphia history.
The suspects are Anthony Rienzi, Nicholas Pinero, Dewan Alexander, Kevin Convey and Boupanh Kathavong, all 18; Thomas Crook, 19, and Carlo Johnson, 20. They are from Abington Township, a cluster of mostly affluent suburbs four miles north of the city.
Most of the defendants have records of disciplinary problems in school, and several were on probation for various offenses, including underage drinking, trespassing and fighting. But none of them have records of violent crime.
The incident began with what was apparently a prearranged rumble between Fox Chase and Abington on Nov. 11, 1994. The two sides had agreed to fight each other over what was believed to be the rape of an Abington girl, according to witnesses who testified in a preliminary hearing last year. The rape turned out to be a false rumor.
Just before 10 P.M., 22 Abington teen-agers in five cars pulled up to the McDonald's restaurant on Oxford Avenue in Fox Chase. Another 20 or 30 youths from Fox Chase showed up, witnesses said, and fighting broke out immediately.
Several Fox Chase youths, who spoke on the condition that their names not be used, said they had known about the fight for about a week beforehand and had anticipated a routine weekend brawl. They said that they expected someone might get hurt -- perhaps punched out or slashed. But when they saw that the Abington youths had baseball bats, they said, they ran.
The Abington youths then got back in their cars and sped to St. Cecilia's Roman Catholic Church, where they caught up with Eddie. There are differing accounts as to whether he was involved in the initial altercation.
One defendant tripped Eddie with a baseball bat, witnesses said in court papers. Within minutes, a circle of boys surrounded him, kicking and punching. With a mob cheering them on, witnesses said, several boys took turns hitting Eddie with bats.
One swung the bat "like a golf club," crushing the right side of Eddie's skull, said one witness. Another brought the bat down on his head "like he was chopping wood." Another kicked Eddie's face with a steel-toed boot.
"There was no humanity, no compassion, no caring," said Joseph D. Casey, an assistant district attorney who is prosecuting the case. "Nothing that makes them different from beasts."
Mr. Casey will try to prove that the youths set out to kill Eddie, rather than simply got carried away. If he is successful, they would be convicted of first-degree murder and would face life in prison. He said he chose not to seek the death penalty because there were no "aggravating circumstances," as the law requires.
Lawyers for the defendants, who are being tried together, argue that because the Fox Chase youths apparently planned to fight Abington and "provoked" their adversaries before the beating, the suspects should face lesser charges. A few defendants contend that they did not participate in the beating at all.
"There's a whole other side to this incident that hasn't come out," said John I. McMahon Jr., a lawyer for Mr. Rienzi. "It's not like this kid was walking out of his church and he got mugged by seven youths from Abington. It's not a first-degree murder case any way you cut it."
Mr. Crook, who has admitted striking Eddie three times with a baseball bat, told police officers: "I never meant for somebody to get killed. It was supposed to just be a fight."
Asked why he used the bat, he said: "I don't know. I just got caught up in all the excitement."