Oral arguments scheduled in Anthony Milano murder case

Richard R. Laird mugshot
Richard R. Laird. (Photo: Courtesy of the PA Department of Corrections)

Richard R. Laird, who’s been on death row for 35 years for the gruesome killing of gay artist Anthony Milano, will have his day in court to seek his removal from death row.

A three-judge panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently agreed to hear Laird’s request to be placed in the general prison population. Oral arguments are tentatively scheduled for 2 p.m. Sept. 18 in the Maris Courtroom of the U.S. Court House, 601 Market St. in Center City.

In December 1987, Laird and his accomplice Frank R. Chester kidnapped Milano, 26, to a wooded area in Tullytown, Pa., and slashed his throat so many times that Milano’s head was nearly severed.

The case became a cause celebre in the local LGBTQ+ community because both defendants voiced homophobic slurs inside a Bucks County tavern, prior to kidnapping Milano and killing him. 

Prosecutors described the case as an “anti-gay hate crime,” but there were no LGBTQ-inclusive hate-crime laws on the books at the time.

In 1988, Laird and Chester were sentenced to death by a Bucks County jury. But both men eventually were granted new trials due to faulty jury instructions.

Rather than retry Chester, Bucks County authorities agreed to remove him from death row to the general prison population in 2016. In return, Chester agreed to serve a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Chester, 55, is currently incarcerated at a state prison in Marienville, Pa.

However, no such deal was offered to Laird, who’s believed to have inflicted the most severe wounds upon Milano. After a second trial in 2007, Laird was resentenced to death. 

The federal appellate judges scheduled to hear Laird’s appeal are D. Michael Fisher, Peter J. Phipps and L. Felipe Restrepo.

According to defense papers, Laird was orally and anally raped by his father between the ages of five and 11. The abuse caused him to become severely homophobic. He still suffers from gag reflex and cannot stand to be touched by another man. If jurors were alerted to the strong connection between Laird’s childhood abuse and Milano’s murder, they may have spared his life.

However, prosecutors scoffed at the notion that Laird cannot tolerate being touched by another man. They noted that prior to killing Milano, Laird and Chester slow-danced together in the tavern, in order to mock Milano, according to prosecution papers.

Laird, 60, is currently housed on death row at a state prison in Somerset, Pa.

Neither side had a comment for this story. 

In court papers, defense attorneys reiterated that Laird should be removed from death row.

“Trial counsel [for Laird] failed to develop mitigating evidence about childhood sexual abuse,” Laird’s attorneys wrote, in a summary of their case. “The jury would not likely have imposed death if it had heard the evidence; and the state court unreasonably ruled otherwise.”

The prosecution refuted those contentions, in a summary provided to the court. “[Laird’s] trial counsel was not ineffective in failing to retain an expert specializing in child sexual abuse,” the summary states. 

The prosecution’s summary goes on to note that other experts were retained on behalf of Laird and presented evidence similar to the evidence Laird says would have kept him from death row.

Maria A. Bivens, a spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections, said death-row inmates have many of the same privileges as inmates in the general prison population.

“[Death-row] inmates have many of the same privileges as those in the general population,” Bivens said in an email. “For example, to be out of their cells 42.5 hours a week or more, to use the phone three times per day for 15 minutes per call, and to have contact visits with their family/friends.”

Death-row inmates wear the same clothing as clothing worn in the general prison population; they have similar access to mental health, educational, recreational, vocational and religious programming; they can get paid for similar work assignments; and they can purchase a television, computer and/or radio, Bivens acknowledged.

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