Life Sentence Imposed On Killer Of Dr. Groll

Posted: June 25, 1986

David Steward of West Philadelphia was sentenced yesterday to spend the rest of his life in prison rather than die in the electric chair for the New Year's Day slaying of Dr. Michael Groll, an Abington fertility specialist.

Steward stood in silence as the Montgomery County Court jury's verdict was announced at 1:45 p.m., after just over three hours of deliberation.

His mother, Lillian, watched through tears from the front row, as did Steward's girlfriend, Terri Webb of West Philadelphia. She hugged their 5- year-old daughter, Keisha, as the sentence was imposed. Their other daughter, Aleta, 7, was not in the courtroom.

After the sentencing, Lillian Steward said only, "Thank God it turned out like it did," as she left the courthouse.

Steward, 26, of the 1300 block of North 57th Street, and Christopher Briggman, 24, of the 500 block of North 56th Street, were each found guilty on Monday of murder, robbery and related offenses in the doctor's shooting, which occurred in the second-floor bedroom of the Grolls' split-level home in the Rydal section of Abington Township.

Briggman was found guilty of second-degree murder and faces an automatic sentence of life imprisonment. Steward was found guilty of first-degree murder, which required the jury's further deliberations on the death penalty.

As jurors made their way out of the King of Prussia motel where they had been sequestered for more than a week, none would answer questions about their deliberations. Jury foreman Gerald Dotterer said they had agreed among themselves not to discuss the case with reporters.

In asking the jury to return the lesser sentence of life in prison, Steward's attorney, Arthur H. James of Philadelphia, told the 12 jurors that if they were to impose the death penalty, "I don't think there's that much difference" between what the defendant did and what they would be doing. "I don't think you have to kill him to prove your point," James said.

Steward's mother, his aunt and two college professors at Beaver College who knew Steward from the four years he attended classes there testified on his behalf at his sentencing hearing yesterday.

Edward Wolff, who was Steward's adviser at Beaver, described him as "very modest, polite and respectful" of Wolff and as a student who seemed concerned with his studies. "I was shocked to hear that this happened," he said.

In seeking the death penalty, Montgomery County District Attorney Thomas Waters told the jury that Steward was found guilty of "the most outrageous, heinous crime that can be committed."

He said Steward knew that people were in the Groll home because he saw one of Michael and Mary Groll's three children sleeping, and yet persisted in entering the couple's bedroom. Although he said that Steward had no ''significant" criminal history, Waters noted Steward's 1980 conviction in New Jersey for breaking and entering. He said that Briggman was also a co- defendant in that case.

"I do not appeal to your heart or your soul," he told them. "I seek the execution of David Steward as the ultimate legislative act in murder one (first-degree murder) that this jury has sworn to uphold. . . . Let the punishment fit the crime."

After the sentence was imposed, Waters said that he was "disappointed" in the jury's decision. "I think if there ever was a death case in Montgomery County, this is it," he said. "However, they didn't call it that way, and I'm satisfied with the verdict."

Testimony showed that it was Steward who fired the fatal shot from a .38- caliber, nickel-plated revolver that killed Groll, one of the nation's leading endocrinologists and a specialist in female infertility problems. Another shot, fired from a .22-caliber handgun, missed Groll and struck the wall above his bed.

Groll died at Abington Memorial Hospital of a gunshot wound to the chest. Steward and Briggman have been held without bail since their arrest two weeks after the slaying.

No formal sentencing date was set in the case, but under Pennsylvania's parole policy, a person sentenced to life in prison on a first-degree murder charge would be able to apply to the Board of Probation and Parole for a parole hearing only after first serving 15 years.

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