Death penalty for Kaboni Savage

Prosecutors (from left) Steven Mellin, John Gallagher, and David Troyer.
Prosecutors (from left) Steven Mellin, John Gallagher, and David Troyer. (STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 02, 2013

A Philadelphia jury on Friday ordered the death penalty for Kaboni Savage, who became one of the city's most notorious criminals by orchestrating the murders of government witnesses, their relatives, and rivals who threatened him or his sprawling drug operation.

The federal court panel deliberated about 10 hours over two days before unanimously recommending that Savage be executed for 12 murders, including a 2004 firebombing in North Philadelphia that killed four children and two women related to a witness cooperating with the FBI.

U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick said he would impose the sentence Monday.

As the jury forewoman announced the verdicts, Savage stroked his mustache and looked toward the jury box but remained largely as still and silent as he had throughout his three-month trial. None of the nine women and three men looked his way as each stood to declare he or she agreed with the decision.

Savage, 38, who rose from Hunting Park street dealer to drug kingpin, is the first criminal in modern Philadelphia history to receive a federal death sentence. His 12 murder convictions are the most for anyone in the city and one short of the state record. A police official once called him "pure evil."

Christian Hoey, one of Savage's court-appointed lawyers, said he was disappointed with the verdict and would weigh an appeal. A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger said prosecutors in the case - David Troyer, John Gallagher, and Steven Mellin - would have no comment.

The sentence capped an investigation that spanned more than a decade, and a trial that began with jury selection in September and ended May 13 with Savage's convictions for racketeering, arson, witness retaliation, and the dozen murders.

None was as tragic as the firebombing of the North Sixth Street house occupied by the family of Eugene Coleman, once a close friend and confidant of Savage's who had agreed to testify against him.

Just before 5 a.m. Oct. 9, 2004, an enforcer enlisted by Savage doused the Coleman family house with gasoline, pumped gunshots up the stairs, and tossed in a lit gas can. The blaze killed Coleman's 54-year-old mother, Marcella, and his 15-month old son, Damir Jenkins; a cousin, 34-year-old Tameka Nash; and Nash's 10-year-old daughter, Khadjah, plus two other children, Tahj Porchea, 12, and Sean Rodriguez, 15.

Savage was in federal custody at the time, but in secret recordings played repeatedly for jurors, agents overheard him cackling and joking about the fire, and vowing to kill the mothers and children of all the "rats" who betrayed him.

"That's all I dream about - killing rats," he told his girlfriend in one call from prison.

Agents later nabbed the hit man, Lamont Lewis, in a sting and ultimately persuaded him to cooperate. As the star witness, Lewis testified that Savage and his sister, Kidada, had plotted and directed the Coleman attack, and he said he recruited his cousin Robert Merritt Jr. to help him carry it out.

Lewis said he learned only after the fire that children were in the house. He also said that he was promised $5,000 for the hit but that Kidada Savage gave him only $2,000.

Lewis also admitted killing a rival drug dealer, Carlton Brown, for Savage in 2001. Brown was one of five men Savage had killed because they threatened his business or because he feared they would testify against him.

Savage himself pulled the trigger in only one murder, the unprovoked 1998 shooting of Kenneth Lassiter, a stranger who bumped his car while both men were trying to park near Savage's neighborhood.

Savage's lawyers tried to sow doubt about the charges, portraying his recorded rantings as jailhouse bravado and questioning the credibility of witnesses such as Lewis, who has confessed to at least 11 murders but who was spared the death penalty in a plea deal.

After Savage was convicted, his lawyers called his children and girlfriend in a bid to convince the jury that his life had value, even if it would be spent behind bars.

But prosecutors said no prison could fully protect society from Savage, reminding jurors that he directed more than half his killings from custody, and replaying tapes that suggested prison wouldn't slow him down. "Their kids going to pay, their mother going to pay," Savage told a fellow inmate in 2004. "That's the kind of conviction I got for this."

Coleman's relatives attended parts of the trial and were there for the guilty verdicts, as were members of Savage's family. Neither family appeared to be represented Friday for the death-penalty announcement, when the room was packed with prosecutors, lawyers, reporters, and other observers.

According to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, 69 federal defendants have been sentenced to death since 1988. Of them, only three have been executed, none in the last decade.

The jury in Savage's case is not done. After his sentencing Monday, the panel will begin hearing evidence and arguments in a similar death-penalty phase for one of Savage's enforcers and codefendants, Steven Northington, who was convicted in the murders of two rival drug dealers.

Kidada Savage and Merritt could face up to life in prison when they are sentenced this year for their roles in the conspiracy.

Contact John P. Martin at 215-925-2649,, or follow @JPMartinInky on Twitter.

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