John Peck appeared before a Westmoreland County jury in early December and for the next 40 minutes he pleaded for conviction.
This was the last time Peck did so as the county district attorney – a post he has held since 1994. He leaves at the end of the year after failing in November to win a seventh term.
“I’m so committed to each case that until I read it in the newspaper I never thought it was the last trial,” Peck told the Tribune-Review. âYou have to be fully committed to adjudicate a case. “
The 74-year-old attorney has been pursuing cases since 1981, first as a part-time assistant and then as an elected county district attorney. It’s the only job he ever really wanted and the one he became after spending eight years working across the aisle as an assistant public defender.
Peck is a trial attorney, and that’s how he approached the post of district attorney. For decades he has been involved in the most high-profile trials, but has also been the lead prosecutor in cases that do not always make the headlines. When not standing in front of a jury, he was reviewing legal records and precedents from stacks of law books.
The President of the Common Pleas Court, Judge Rita Hathaway, worked with Peck as an assistant district attorney, then for him after being appointed to replace John Driscoll as the county’s senior attorney.
âIn my 33 years as general counsel and judge, John Peck is the best general counsel I have ever seen,â Hathaway said.
Hathaway has presided over some of Peck’s most notable cases, including those of the six roommates in Greensburg who were convicted of the 2010 torture and murder of a mentally disabled woman and the conviction of a Harrison man on death row for the 2017 New Kensington Police Murder. Officer Brian Shaw.
“Kill for the thrill”
As Deputy District Attorney in 1984, Peck took over the prosecution of “Kill for Thrill” murderers John Lesko and Michael Travaglia. The two men were tried and convicted of a series of murders in which they killed two men, a woman and a rookie police officer between Christmas 1979 and the New Years 1980.
Peck, who was not a prosecutor when the cases were first tried in 1981, was tasked with prosecuting the cases again after an appeals court overturned death sentences originally handed down by jurors. Peck successfully argued for the death sentences against Lesko in 1995 and Travaglia a decade later.
Travaglia died in prison in 2017. Lesko continues to challenge his conviction and death sentence. Peck traveled to Philadelphia last summer to argue in a federal appeals court in Lesko’s latest appeal.
As prosecutors across the country have turned away from calling for the death penalty, Peck has continued to push for the death penalty in cases where he has determined it applies. Over the past year, he has filed for the death penalty against two defendants: one charged with the murder of an infant and the other charged with the shooting death of a couple in Penn Township.
“I have a sworn responsibility to uphold the law,” Peck said, noting that the death penalty is still relevant in Pennsylvania. “These are cases where I thought the accused could not be rehabilitated.”
“Excellent civil servant”
For Peck, it’s always a matter of labor and the law.
Those who work with him say that Peck is the quintessential professional, but also a mentor and colleague – a man who, despite his tough demeanor in the courtroom, also has a sarcastic side and who, on rare occasions, does. even shows a little humor.
Tony Marcocci, a detective in the DA’s office, has been in office almost as long as Peck. Marcocci has spent years working undercover and is one of the few office workers who has managed to circumvent Peck’s strict dress code, which requires men to wear dark suits, white shirts and ties in the office and to the court.
“I think he just gave up on me,” Marcocci joked.
Marcocci recalled a trial in which he sat next to Peck, who was unhappy with what he heard on an audio recording of a drug deal. âHe was breaking my stones because I was wearing cowboy boots that clicked when I walked in the parking lot,â Marcocci said. “The voices were just mumbles, and all you could hear were those boots.”
Peck has always been more than serious in his work.
He hasn’t changed his daily routine in decades. He drives to Greensburg from his New Kensington home and starts each day by attending mass at Our Lady of Grace Church. He then heads to the courthouse, where he’s usually the first to arrive at the office at 7:30 a.m. It’s not uncommon for Peck to be the last to leave, long after the sun has set, according to staff members.
Driscoll, whose election as a county judge in 1994 created the opening in the district attorney’s office that Peck filled, still calls him a friend. For about 40 years, they had lunch together at least once a week.
âI’ve known dozens of District Attorneys over the years, and John stands right above everyone else. He’s a great public servant, âDriscoll said.
Stephen A. Zappala Jr., Allegheny County District Attorney since 1998, has worked with Peck for more than two decades.
âHe was very passionate about the people of Westmoreland County, and his tenure as a prosecutor has been impactful and effective for his constituents,â Zappala said. “John is a good man, and I salute his years of service and wish him a long, happy and healthy retirement.”
Peck’s commitment to his business and his victims of crime and his dedication to work, working long hours and weekends, is what stood out for Driscoll.
âHe would take three days off and call it a vacation,â Driscoll said.
Like Peck, Dante Bertani was a civil servant for over 40 years. Bertani, the county’s first chief public defender, hired Peck in 1972 and went on to become a regular opponent. It was not uncommon for lawyers to fill courtrooms to watch them fight over cases that, at times, looked more like bar room arguments than court proceedings.
âOne of the first cases I tried against John, I ended up winning. In his conclusion John said he worked for me and learned from me. When I won, I told him I hadn’t taught him everything, âsaid Bertani. “He got mad at me and didn’t speak to me for a few weeks.”
But there was always a backdrop of respect.
âJohn has always been very tough. It was not easy and didn’t give anything, âsaid Bertani.
It’s politics that is perhaps Peck’s least favorite part of his job. But politics is in his blood.
Her father served over a dozen years as a county sheriff until 1980. Her sister is still a district judge in Lower Burrell.
âPolitics for him was a way of life,â Peck said of his father. âI have always considered myself to be a lawyer, not a politician. I don’t think about politics. It should never be part of this office.
His independent view of politics may be, in part, the reason Peck was unable to win another term. He was beaten in November by Republican Nicole Ziccarelli, who is expected to take over in January.
Peck said he does not regret the campaign. And although he has accepted defeat, he intends to remain in office until the end of his term. He spent much of his final weeks in office preparing for court hearings scheduled for the end of the year.
âI am a steward of the district attorney’s office and look forward to completing the job before I leave my post,â Peck said. âI’ll miss the job, but it’s not the end of life. Beside my family, it is extremely rewarding and fulfilling.