Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Lawyers Make Moves in Two High-Profile Cases

There are some developments in both the criminal court cases pending against actor Bill Cosby and Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, with lawyers either withdrawing or joining the defense teams.

Los Angeles lawyers Christopher Tayback and Joseph Sarles are out as part of Cosby’s defense team, filing petitions on Tuesday in Montgomery County Court to withdraw their appearances. Tayback and Sarles, of the Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan firm did not expound on their reasons for withdrawing from the four-member defense team.

Lead defense lawyer Brian J. McMonagle, of Philadelphia, and Monique Pressley, of Washington, D.C., will continue to represent Cosby, who is facing sex assault-related charges in connection with an alleged encounter he had with a woman at his Cheltenham home in 2004.

Just last week, it was Tayback who did much of the arguing in court on behalf of Cosby during a hearing on defense requests to dismiss charges or to grant Cosby a new preliminary hearing. 

Bill Cosby/ Submitted Photo

During the hearing, Tayback, argued Cosby’s “due process rights” were violated when prosecutors relied on so-called “hearsay” evidence to establish the elements of the charged offenses without providing Cosby the chance to confront and cross-examine his alleged accuser at his May 24 preliminary hearing.

The judge rejected the defense arguments, allowing Cosby’s case to move to trial, which presumably is months away.

In Kane’s alleged perjury case, Philadelphia lawyer Douglas K. Rosenblum joined the defense team as co-counsel, according to documents filed this week in county court. Rosenblum, of the firm Pietragallo Gordon Alfano Bosick & Raspanti, is well-known to county courthouse observers having once been employed as a county prosecutor.

Rosenblum joins defense lawyers Gerald L. Shargel, Seth C. Farber, and Ross M. Kramer, of the New York law firm of Winston & Strawn, and Scranton lawyer Amil Minora on Kane’s defense team.

Kane faces an Aug. 8 trial on charges of perjury, obstructing administration of law, abuse of office and false swearing in connection with allegations she orchestrated the illegal disclosure of confidential investigative information and secret grand jury information to the media and then engaged in acts designed to conceal and cover up her alleged conduct.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Montco Prosecutor Kristen Feden Honored by Local Magazine

Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Kristen Feden is known for being tough in court and yet many consider her to be one of the most likable prosecutors to grace the halls of the courthouse. She greets everyone with a smile and always seems to have a kind word. Her laugh is infectious.

Lately, she’s had even more to smile about.
Montco Asst. D.A. Kristen Feden/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Feden, who has been a prosecutor since 2012, was honored in the Philadelphia Business Journal’s May special edition entitled, “40 Under 40 Living The Dream,” which profiled Philadelphia area movers and shakers under 40 who are dedicated to their careers and communities.

“It definitely caught me off guard. I was very surprised but I was ecstatic when I received it,” Feden, who is captain of the district attorney’s elder abuse unit and is a member of the sex crimes prosecution division, told me recently. “It was one of the highest honors I’ve received.”

The popular business publication featured Feden, of Abington, on its cover and a profile of Feden was included in the inside pages.

“I was extremely excited. It was such a great honor because being recognized as a public servant by a business journal shows that even the business world recognizes, respects and honors public servants, including prosecutors, whose sole job is to keep the community safe,” said Feden, who was a law clerk for Judge Garrett D. Page before being hired as a prosecutor.

Kristen Feden pages through Philadelphia Business Journal
Feden, a graduate of Temple University Beasley School of Law, has prosecuted many sex crime cases. 

She recently was assigned to assist District Attorney Kevin R. Steele in the prosecution of entertainer Bill Cosby, who is accused of sexually assaulting a woman at his Cheltenham home in 2004. 

It’s the highest profile case to ever hit the local courthouse.

You can bet that all eyes will continue to be on Feden as the Cosby case winds its way through the court system this year.

Feden’s coworkers said her being recognized by the Philadelphia Business Journal was well-deserved.

“I was very ecstatic to hear that she was nominated. She is a hardworking individual. She cares deeply about her cases and the victims that are involved and she’s a fantastic prosecutor. So I was not surprised that she was nominated and I’m very excited for her,” said colleague Assistant District Attorney Sophia Polites.

Feden, who is married to Nicholas Feden and is the mother of two young boys, Nicholas Jr. and Ethan, who she calls her “beautiful angels,” said she shares the honor with her colleagues.

“I let them know this was an honor that I shared with all of them as a public servant because all of them have helped me to achieve this,” Feden said humbly. “It wasn’t just an honor for me, it was an honor I share with the office as a whole and my fellow prosecutors.”
Kristen Feden proudly displays Philadelphia Business Journal that honored her on front page/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

So if you see Feden in the courthouse hallways congratulate her for being recognized by the Philadelphia Business Journal.

Mr. Everybody’s Business also says, congratulations, Kristen!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Stan Sarnocinski Participates in Flag Day Ceremony

On June 14, Stan Sarnocinski Jr., who works for the county's purchasing department as supply room supervisor, participated in an annual Flag Day ceremony held at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

“I was proud and I was very happy to do this and very honored to be able to be there,” Sarnocinski said when I talked to him this week after his participation in the event.

Stan Sarnocinski Jr. (Center) with members of U.S. Army Color Guard/Photo courtesy Sarnocinski

Sarnocinski, currently the national president of the Patriotic Order Sons of America, the oldest patriotic organization in the U.S., founded in 1847, was a guest speaker at the event and was joined on the trip by 38 others from the organization. The U.S. Army also celebrated a birthday on June 14.

“Having a mom and a dad who were both World War II vets, I got to ring the Freedom Bell twice, for my mom and dad,” Sarnocinski said proudly.

The bell also was rung 49 times in remebrance of the victims of last weekend’s shooting spree in Orlando.

Here’s what Sarnocinski had to say when he spoke to the audience at the ceremony:

“As National president of the Patriotic Order Sons of America, I am honored to be here in Philadelphia today to help celebrate Flag Day. I also would like to wish the U.S. Army a Happy 241st Birthday. The Patriotic Order Sons of America was founded in 1847 in Philadelphia by Dr. Reynell Coates. The order was instrumental in getting Flag Day made a national holiday. One of our brothers, Francis E. Walter, who was a U.S. congressman, drafted the legislation which was signed on Aug. 3, 1949, by President Harry S. Truman declaring Flag Day fall each year on June 14. Our order has a long history in the Philadelphia area. We helped to save the Betsy Ross House and to bring Admiral Dewey’s flagship, the U.S. Battleship Olympia, to Philadelphia. We also helped to purchase and restore General George Washington’s Headquarters in Valley Forge. The order is glad to be able to present these American Flags to Independence Hall and the U.S. Park Service again this year. Thank you.”

Flag Day at Independence Hall/Photo courtesy Stan Sarnocinski
Members of the Order presented the superintendent at Independence Hall with a photograph of President Harry S. Truman in 1949 signing legislation that earmarked June 14 as Flag Day. 

The Order has also donated flags to fly at Independence Hall and at Valley Forge National Historical Park for over 60 years, according to Sarnocinski.

At the conclusion of the ceremony members of an Army paratrooper squad parachuted with giant American Flags.
“That was so impressive,” Sarnocinski recalled.

Sarnocinski is known for displaying patriotism year round. As a member of the Patriotic Order Sons of America, Washington Camp 523 of Eagleville, he has taken part in numerous solemn ceremonies retiring hundreds of tattered and torn American flags. Many of the flags are collected at the county courthouse in a special flag drop-off box that Sarnocinski was instrumental in securing.

The Order also has sponsored flag retirement boxes at the following locations: Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge National Historical Park; the Lower Salford Township building; Ace Hardware, Route 63, Harleysville; the 4-H Club along Route 113 in Creamery; the Lowe’s store on Egypt Road, Oaks; the Montgomery Township building along Stump Road in Montgomeryville; the American Legion Post 688, Route 30, in Wayne, Chester County; and at the organization’s state office along Route 61 in Leesport, Berks County.
Stan Sarnocinski Jr. collecting retired flags/ Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

I salute you, Stan, for participating in these very patriotic events!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Sometimes Jurors Bring The Drama to a Courtroom

One thing I have learned after covering courts for more than two decades, jurors are unpredictable and many times they bring their own drama to a courtroom or present unusual requests.

During the trial of a Norristown pastor who was accused of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl, there were moments of tension as the defendant’s supporters and the victim’s family lined the hallways waiting for a verdict. 

When word of a verdict came, everyone piled into Judge Gary Silow’s courtroom, anxious for the announcement.

There’s no more intense time in a courtroom than those moments when everyone is assembling to learn of a verdict, moments filled with an eerie silence. It’s the most nerve-wracking time of a trial.

However, on this particular occasion the drama was suddenly heightened when one of the jurors fainted on his way into the courtroom to announce the verdict. His fellow jurors, those who had already entered the courtroom and had taken their seats, had worried looks on their faces as sheriff’s deputies jumped into action to attend to the ill juror.

Spectators appeared stunned and there were several tense moments during which everyone was wondering if that verdict would ever be announced. 

A few moments later, the juror, recovered from the fainting spell, appeared from a closed door at the rear of the courtroom, ready to take his place with his fellow jurors. The guilty verdict was then announced.

It was the first time that I could recall a juror fainting just before a verdict was about to be recorded. Talk about high anxiety.

Something unusual also occurred during the trial in May of a Pottstown man accused of sexually assaulting a woman on three occasions during a period of time when they dated.

Supporters of both the victim and the defendant and other spectators gathered one morning to hear closing arguments of the lawyers, Assistant District Attorney James Price and defense lawyer Benjamin Cooper.

Suddenly, it became apparent that something was amiss. Word soon leaked that one female juror had lost an article of diamond jewelry during the course of the day and some speculated she wouldn’t be able to concentrate on trial testimony if she was worried about finding her diamond. The proceedings before Judge Thomas P. Rogers suddenly came to standstill.

The jurors were kept secluded in a room behind the courtroom while sheriff’s deputies and others scoured the courtroom looking for the diamond. Some deputies, I was told, even went outside the courthouse to search in areas that the juror had communicated that she had frequented while on a court break.

About 45 minutes later the proceedings got back on track even though the diamond was never found.

During the trial of an accused Abington burglar, jurors apparently had a difficult time reading some of the exhibits that went back with them to the jury room. 

They sent a note to the judge asking if they could have a magnifying glass to read one of the exhibits, specifically phone records that prosecutors claimed linked the defendant to the area of the burglary.

Judge Steven T. O’Neill flat out told the jury “No,” that a magnifying glass wasn’t utilized during the trial and was not part of any exhibit. The jurors shook their heads in agreement, apparently understanding and accepting the judge’s decision. They promptly returned to the jury deliberation room without a magnifying glass and having to rely on their own eyeballs.

It was the first time I could recall jurors asking for a magnifying glass to review an exhibit.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

To Some, He's Known As "The Man"

Last week, in recognition of National Drug Court Month, the Montgomery County commissioners issued a proclamation lauding the county’s drug treatment program overseen by Judge Steven T. O’Neill for the last 10 years.
Judge Steven T. O'Neill/Submitted photo

Commissioners Josh Shapiro, Val Arkoosh and Joe Gale called O’Neill “a trailblazer” and “visionary” for his work and dedication to a program that helps offenders fight their addictions, encourages them to change their lifestyles and offers them the opportunity to earn a dismissal of the criminal charges against them or to have their court supervision terminated early.

Shapiro recalled attending the recent 82nd drug court graduation and was awed by the way the graduates looked up to O’Neill with respect and admiration.

“As you poked your head out before the program began, one of, I presume, the graduates sitting behind me goes, ‘There’s the judge, he’s The Man,’” Shapiro smiled. “How often does that occur when a defendant’s in the courtroom and says, ‘He’s The Man?’ That doesn’t happen all the time and I think that speaks to the approach that you individually take but also the approach that collectively we take here in Montgomery County.”

Commissioner Josh Shapiro/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Shapiro said the county’s drug treatment court has become the model for other counties designing problem-solving courts all across the state.

O’Neill took about 20 minutes to tout the program during the commissioners’ meeting. I sometimes grouse that O’Neill speaks way too long at times when speaking publicly but in this instance it was warranted. He has every right to be proud of the program. It has saved lives, I have no doubt.

Judge O'Neill addresses commissioners/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

I’ve interviewed people who have been helped by O’Neill’s drug court program and who credit O’Neill and his assisting probation officers and counselors for saving their lives.

“I love Judge O’Neill. He genuinely cares. He is trying to help you. He is trying to save your life. If it wasn’t for drug court I don’t know where I would be, probably nowhere good,” one young woman told me during a 2013 interview 

Judge O'Neill receives proclamation/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
There’s probably someone else who thinks of O’Neill as “The Man.”

You’ll recall something I posted here last October, when O’Neill didn’t think twice before springing into action after witnessing a car crash at a gas station on Montgomery Avenue in Lower Merion.

Turns out O’Neill was pumping gas, minding his business, when suddenly a car entering the gas station lot crashed into a pillar holding up the canopy over the gas pumps. The female driver was unresponsive, her foot still on the accelerator, tires spinning, and smoke began filling the interior of her burning vehicle, according to sources.

O’Neill reportedly yelled for the attendant to call 911 while he dashed to the woman’s vehicle and banged on the windows to try to get a response from the driver while the vehicle’s tires continued to spin. Finding the doors locked and the woman still unresponsive, O’Neill grabbed a crowbar from the station attendant and smashed the back window of the vehicle to allow the smoke that was building inside to escape.

By that time, emergency crews arrived and were able to get the woman out of the vehicle, sources said.

Perhaps, “The Man” moniker IS well-deserved.

Congratulations, your honor, for your 10-years of service making drug court a success.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

It May Not be 'Law and Order,' But Aspiring Public Servants Enjoy First-hand Look at Legal Profession

It wasn’t like anything they ever saw depicted in television legal dramas.

But by taking part in a mock trial project some Montgomery County students enrolled in local homeschooling programs had the opportunity recently to obtain a comprehensive view of the criminal justice system.

More than a dozen eighth- and ninth-grade students from the Souderton and Willow Grove areas visited courtrooms, met judges, prosecutors, court administrators, a member of the media and other courthouse workers as they explored vocations in the legal arena.

“I think it was exciting and encouraging for them to see the jury box, to talk to the judge, to talk to a prosecutor and a court administrator just to see what is involved to make this process seem as seamless as it is at times,” said Shannan Mazlo, a homeschooling parent who helped organize two days of visits to the courthouse.

“I think the importance of it was it’s not ‘Law and Order,’” added fellow homeschooling parent Melissa Davis. “In our judicial system, it’s not just a lawyer and a judge but there are other opportunities, there are clerks, there are court reporters. There are definitely different dimensions. I think that gives them a unique perspective.”

Mazlo and Davis are supported as homeschoolers by Classical Conversations, a nationwide community of homeschoolers who follow a classical model of education through a Christian worldview.

County Court Administrator Michael Kehs and Assistant District Attorney Cara McMenamin gave the visiting students and their parents a tour of courtrooms and answered the students’ probing questions about what it’s like to work at a courthouse and as a prosecutor. Judge William R. Carpenter graciously took time out of his day to address the students who sat in the jury box. Some also took a seat in the witness box.
Michael Kehs and Cara McMenamin/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Sitting in the witness box, the students smiled from ear to ear, and said the experience was awesome and also somewhat intimidating.

I also was invited to address the students briefly, during which I explained the exciting job of being a court news reporter.

“This is the age where they can be really excited about their futures and this can be a pivotal moment for them,” Mazlo reminded me. “Maybe this will ignite a spark in one of the kids, that maybe this will be a career path that they didn’t consider and will now want to pursue.”

The students were polite, energized and appeared eager to learn about the court system and it was inspiring to see how interested the youngsters were in the world around them. I have no doubt some of them caught the bug to be a lawyer, a judge, and yes, even a journalist.

“Thank you for coming along with us on the tour. I really enjoyed your explanations,” one student wrote to me in a note of thanks.

“Thank you for your time and expertise! Thank you for sharing your perspective with us,” other students wrote.

Students on Mock Trial Teams/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
After an initial visit and tour, the students returned to the courthouse for a mock trial competition last month. The students observed how a case develops from crime to conviction over the course of 15 weeks preparing for the competition.

“They had to work through a substantial amount of information and determine what was important to their case. They knew it so well, they were able to present it to the judge and jury,” Mazlo said.

The jury was comprised of a panel of volunteers who indicated they were impressed by the students’ professionalism in the courtroom.

The mock case involved that of a South Carolina man who was charged with murder and possession of a dangerous animal after his dog fatally mauled a teenager who went onto his property.

“There were a lot of red herrings to really cause the kids to dig deep and figure out their strategy,” Mazlo said. “It really brought out their critical thinking skills. A lot of the kids played dual roles as lawyers and witnesses and so they had to think on their feet.”

Each team presented the case twice, once as the prosecution and then as the defense, devising a strategy to defend the accused.
“I’m so proud that nerves didn’t take over. They all did phenomenal. No one really tripped up or made any obvious mistakes,” Mazlo said.

Judge Carpenter presided over the competition and provided the future legal eagles with advice on the handling of evidence, trial strategy and delivery. The students said it was an honor to meet the judge.
Mock Trial Team/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

“We are incredibly thankful for the generosity of the judge and his willingness to give back to the community and sit in on the mock trial. We’re so thankful he took the time to nurture the children and help educate them about our court system,” Mazlo said.

It didn’t matter who prevailed during the trial, it was not about winning but about showcasing the skills they learned. I believe all the students were winners because they gained so much knowledge by participating in the exercise.

For a few days, the students, many with dreams of public service in their futures, were involved in something special, something important, and something they will remember for a very long time.

Kudos to Judge Carpenter, Kehs and McMenamin for being role models and taking time out of their hectic schedules to help mentor young people. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

Young Judicial Hopeful Sean Herron Gets Glimpse of Court Career

Order in the courtroom, there was new face on the Montgomery County bench this week!

At least for a few cherished, pretend moments.

Eleven-year-old Sean Herron, a sixth grade student at Mater Dei Catholic School in Lansdale, flashed a wide smile as he donned the black robe of Judge Gail A. Weilheimer this week and situated his small frame in the judge’s large, leather chair behind the bench.

“How’s it feel up there?” Weilheimer asked the youngster who dreams of becoming a judge one day.

“Cool,” he replied happily as he grasped the judge’s wooden gavel.

Sean and his father, Joseph, were the guests of Weilheimer on one recent morning as Sean sought to learn everything he could about the legal profession.

“I visited the courtrooms upstairs and I saw how the judges work and all their robes and how you get prepared for the case,” Sean said eagerly. “I learned a lot and it was really fun to see what they do.”
Sean Herron takes the bench/ Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

I asked Sean what it was like to wear a judicial robe and he didn’t hold back his delight.

“I felt like a real judge,” he said. “The gavel was really fun.”

Sean gained the chance to tour the courthouse and meet a judge by winning an essay contest in his sixth grade class at Mater Dei. The Nocchi Law Firm in the Lansdale area sponsors the contest, during which the winner receives tuition reimbursement and a trip to the courthouse to meet a judge. Sean’s day also included lunch at the Montgomery Bar Association in Norristown.

“Since I wrote that essay I really got an interest in being a judge. Now I know how everything works,” said Sean, who turns 12 next week.

This is the second year that the Nocchi Law Firm has sponsored the contest.
Lawyer Marguerite Nocchi, who has practiced family law for 26 years, said the contest winners “really have a great time” during the courthouse visit.

“My children went to that school when it was called Saint Stanislaus and I like to give back to the community and this is just a little way that I do,” said Nocchi, explaining she enjoys sponsoring the contest winner.

Lawyer Marguerite Nocchi with Sean Herron/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
Nocchi enjoyed seeing Sean’s eyes light up when he entered the courtroom.

“It was spectacular. He really has a gift. He was very poised speaking with the judge. He was prepared with questions for her and he answered her questions. He’s a natural,” Nocchi gushed.

“I’m going to vote for him, I can’t wait,” Nocchi added, referring to Sean’s desire to run for judge in the future.

Sean’s father couldn’t be prouder.

“Sean’s career choice that he wants to pursue is being a judge. That’s what brought us here. He’s very excited. You can tell from the smile on his face, he’s very excited to be here today,” said Joseph Herron.

Weilheimer enjoys giving young people the opportunity to explore the legal profession from her courtroom. She recalled that when she was 18 and considering a career in law, then Bucks County District Attorney Alan M. Rubenstein allowed her to shadow some lawyers. Rubenstein went on to be a judge in Bucks.
Montgomery County Judge Gail A. Weilheimer/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

“From that, it started me on my path of being interested in law, going to law school and eventually getting to this place,” Weilheimer recalled. “So if I can help a younger person who thinks they’re interested in law figure out if this is something they want to pursue, I had that opportunity given to me and I’d like to do that for someone else.” 

Kudos to Nocchi and Weilheimer for taking the time to mentor students.

Good luck, Sean, on your future endeavors. Maybe I’ll be reporting from your courtroom one day.