Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sea of Green

     Happy St. Patrick's Day everyone!

     The courthouse was a sea of green today as courthouse employees went all out by wearing green sweaters, pants, ties and shirts to celebrate all things Irish. I even spotted some flashing green earrings on one courthouse worker.
     But one courthouse visitor, Norristown lawyer James W. Flood, showed the most Irish spirit when he appeared on the courthouse plaza outside the Main Street entrance at lunchtime to play a few tunes on his bagpipes.
     "It's St. Patrick's Day so I want to spread the joy of the bagpipes to all those who like to listen to it, and a few that don't like to listen to it," Flood joked as a brisk, late winter wind howled outside.
     The clouds overhead and the wind kept most people inside the courthouse but a few employees on lunch breaks stopped to listen and applauded Flood's Irish effort.
James W. Flood /Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
     "I've only been playing for a little over a year," Flood told me, adding he's hoping to eventually qualify to join a local Irish pipe band.
     Flood, whose law office is located at One East Airy Street, said while he won't be playing bagpipes he will be marching in Montgomery County's St. Patrick's Day Parade, which was postponed, due to rain, until March 28.
     Kudos to Flood for taking the time to spread a little Irish cheer.

Check out Flood's bagpipe playing here:

Flood plays bagpipes

Flood plays bagpipes 2


Another Fashion Disaster

    Another day in Montgomery County Court means another fashion disaster.
    As a 38-year-old woman facing a DUI-related charge entered the courtroom, it was hard not to notice the outfit she wore – skin tight jeans with pockets embossed with shiny appliques and a black, lacy blouse that bared her skin. The jeans were so low you could see the woman’s backside peeking out at times and she hiked them up several times as she waited in court.
    Judge Cheryl L. Austin noticed too when she took the bench.  
    “What are you wearing? Where did you think you were coming?” Austin, expressing disbelief, sternly addressed the woman about her inappropriate courtroom attire.
    “I didn’t know there was a dress code. I apologize,” the woman told the judge.
    At that point, the woman’s lawyer advised her to put her coat back on to cover up. The Bucks County woman, who pleaded guilty to a charge she drove under the influence of prescription drugs in Lower Moreland in May 2012, spent the remainder of the hearing in her coat. Her sentence was deferred, so she could undergo a drug and alcohol evaluation, and she will have to return to court at later date to learn her fate. It will be interesting to see if the judge’s message sunk in.
    But the improper fashion choice wasn’t the woman’s only faux pas. She showed up an hour late for her hearing and Austin was equally unamused. The woman told the judge she was stuck in traffic.
   
Judge Cheryl Austin/Photo by Times Herald Staff
“This is really important. For future hearings you need to be here an hour before. If you get caught in traffic that shows me this just isn’t important,” Austin told the woman, reminding her she will have to return to court later to be sentenced. “Do you think you can do that?”
    “Yes,” the woman answered, obviously caught off-guard by the judge’s comments.
    The judge, who retired as a U.S. Navy Captain in 2004 and served as a county prosecutor before being elected judge in 2011, reminded the woman that she'll be deciding her fate.
    “It’s important for you to impress upon me how seriously you take this case. You need to be on time. You need to be dressed like you’re going to court. You can’t be an hour late. You can’t be dressed like that,” Austin told the woman.
   I compliment Judge Austin, who made her point without ever really raising her voice, for demanding decorum in her courtroom. I think more judges should demand it.
   Some old-timers here at Swede and Airy can recall a time when people dressed for court, men in suits or shirts and ties, and women in dresses, even for jury duty.
   But I see it on a daily basis - ragged T-shirts with inappropriate phrases; caps worn in court; low-cut blouses revealing way too much cleavage; short skirts that leave nothing to the imagination; and yes, way too many saggy jeans displaying way too much butt. No one wants or needs to see it!
   There is a lack of respect becoming all too prevalent in dress and language. I’ve said it here before, there is a lack of decorum and incivility, amazingly, even in our courts of law, institutions that should garner respect. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

I Heard It On The Boardwalk

     I enjoy roaming the hallways, stairwells and courtrooms at the Montgomery County Courthouse as I search for news each day, afterall, you never know what you might overhear or who you might stumble upon. Not being one to enjoy sitting behind a desk, I roam a lot, from floor to floor and courtroom to courtroom, leaving many to joke that I "troll" for news and must buy a new pair of shoes each week.
    My favorite place in the courthouse is the so-called "Boardwalk," that long stretch of hallway bedecked by local art on the plaza level, where it's always bustling with lawyers, courthouse workers and citizens serving jury duty or facing hearings in court. Chairs and benches line the walls on either side of the hallway, hence "the boardwalk" designation, and many sit there conversing or passing time on their breaks. It's there I usually hear the most humorous comments or witness some uncanny situations.
     Take the other day for example, I encountered District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman on "the boardwalk" as she arrived for work, bundled up against February's bitter cold in her black overcoat, and we exchanged pleasantries and I inquired about setting up an interview for a story I was considering writing.
"The Boardwalk"
    Busy defense lawyers, prosecutors, courthouse workers and citizens buzzed by as Ferman, who is running for a county judgeship this year, and I chatted.
    Then, out of the blue, one defense lawyer greeted Ferman and uttered, "You look good in black," referring to the overcoat she was wearing. Then he chortled, "You'd look better in a robe," obviously referring to the black one Ferman hopes to wear next year as a judge.
     I chuckled and thought to myself, 'Only on the boardwalk.'
   
Montco DA Risa Vetri Ferman/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
     Suddenly, I noticed a woman slowly pass us several times and stare as if she wanted to interject into our impromptu conversation. The woman abruptly turned around and approached us.
     "I just wanted to stop and say, 'Hello.' I know you from television," the woman gleefully told Ferman, obviously recognizing the DA from the many news conferences she's held during her tenure.
     "I'm a fan. You look better in person than on TV," the woman gushed as Ferman politely and graciously accepted the warm gesture from a private citizen and member of the public she serves.
     Then the woman unexpectedly revealed that she was headed to court for a hearing, adding, "I was bad." The conversation came to a sudden halt. The woman smiled and then headed to the courtroom.
     Ferman was speechless. I was speechless. I didn't expect that! Again, I thought, "Only on the boardwalk."
    As the woman disappeared around the corner and Ferman and I parted ways, I couldn't help but wonder, "Did Ferman get a conviction and a vote that day?"
   

Friday, February 13, 2015

It's A New Look! Looking Good in Blue!


The hallways and corridors of the Montgomery County Courthouse are awash in dark blue these days.


Montgomery County Sheriff's Department deputies are looking good in their new, crisp blue uniforms. The transition has been occurring during the last several weeks.


Many deputies, corporals and sergeants have proudly traded in their white shirts for dark blue ones.



"This change helps sharpen the image of our office and enhances the professionalism of our staff by making them more identifiable as highly trained officers, who can handle any dangerous situation," Sheriff Russell Bono said recently.  "We want our citizens to feel a sense of pride when they see our officers.


The sheriff's department's law enforcement staff will continue to wear dark blue pants and ties, and the original issue patches with the exception of the lieutenants, Captain Greg Womelsdorf, Chief Deputy Willie Richet and Sheriff Bono, who will keep their white shirts.

Montco Sheriff's Deputies Show Off New Uniforms
/Photo Courtesy Montco Sheriff's Dept.
When I first started seeing the new uniforms I took numerous double-takes, often confusing deputies for local police officers, many of whom wear similar dark, blue uniforms. It has taken some time to get used to the new look on deputies, but I like it. And I agree it makes them more identifiable as law enforcement officials. All of the deputies I've spoken to also seem to like their new looks.

Bono said he got the idea after conducting a joint deadbeat parent roundup with the Bucks County Sheriff's Department.  Bono said he really liked the darker monochrome look of the Bucks County deputies' uniforms, and discussed the idea to change shirts with his staff.  The new shirts also help with another problem, Bono said.

"White shirts are hard to keep clean and professional looking while handling prisoners and gear and, getting in and out of transportation vehicles," Bono said.  "This change will help keep our deputies looking good at all times.  We've already been getting a lot of positive feedback."


A special thank you to the men and women of the Sheriff's Department for serving the public well.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

You Can Teach An Old Dog New Tricks

    You've read about 9-year-old Timmy Woodward Jr.'s recent star turn as Gavroche in The Media Theatre's production of "Les Miserables." But the son of Montgomery County lawyers Timothy Woodward and Maureen C. Coggins of Upper Hanover has some acting competition and it's all in the family.
    Family pet "Big," an 11-year-old male Jack Russell Terrier, has a role in The Media Theatre's current production of "The Miracle Worker."
"Big" /Photo Courtesy Timothy Woodward
    "It is his first acting role," said Coggins, explaining theater officials visited the family's home last summer and were naturally charmed by Big. "The director said he would be perfect for the role of Helen Keller's dog, Belle, which we have not informed Big yet is actually a female.
    "He has great range and he's a professional, so he'll be fine with the role," laughed Coggins, tongue planted firmly in cheek.
    There is no understudy so Big likely will appear in every performance. Big appears in two scenes during the production.
    "I don't think I've seen such depth in a character since 'Lassie,'" Coggins, obviously a proud stage mother, joked.
    Coggins admits she was concerned that at 11-years-old Big might not be up to the feat of performing on stage. However, she learned the role is not a very physical one.
    "I was worried because I didn't know what they wanted from him, because he doesn't know any tricks. He's a farm dog. We don't have performing dogs. We have rough farm dogs. The director said he had to learn how to sit," said Coggins, who then proved wrong the old adage that "You Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks."
    "I taught him how to sit for the play. So, you can teach an old dog new tricks," Coggins laughed heartily.
    But the role of Belle is not a speaking role. No barking required.
    "It is not a speaking part, so he does not get his SAG card," Coggins quipped.
     Nor a membership card to Actors' Equity, I presume.
    The show's director also asked Timmy Woodward to appear in the show as "Percy." Little Timmy and his dog Big do not have any scenes together. But Coggins said Timmy is thrilled his beloved pet has joined him in the production.
Timmy Woodward Jr./Photo Courtesty Woodward Family
   "Naturally, he's very proud. We don't have a conflict," Coggins smiled.

Thank you, Maureen, for the lighthearted discussion and for taking part in one of the funniest interviews I've conducted. Your sense of humor is always appreciated.

And best of luck Big and Timmy.

(NOTE: The play "The Miracle Worker" runs through Feb. 15 at The Media Theatre)

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Prosecutor Jordan Friter is Moving On...

     After more than six years of seeking justice for child sexual assault victims and putting rapists and other sexual predators behind bars, Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Jordan Friter is leaving his prosecutorial hat behind to begin a new job in the private sector in the arena of civil litigation.
Montgomery County Prosecutor Jordan Friter/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
     "If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't change anything about it," Friter said last week as he was preparting to leave his fourth floor office at the courthouse for the last time. 

     “Having the opportunity to handle sexual assault cases and cases involving child abuse is an experience that has been the most rewarding thing that I’ve ever done, fighting for justice for the most vulnerable in our society.  

     “These kids, a lot of times, don’t even understand, even at the most elementary level, what has happened to them. But to be able to bring them and their families justice and closure so they can move on and live normal lives is something that has been very rewarding to me,” Friter added.
     The life of a sex crimes prosecutor can be emotionally draining and even the best prosecutors are subject to burnout. But Friter never showed signs of career fatigue and was always at the top of his game in the courtroom fighting for crime victims.
     “It has given me a whole different perspective on the world and about the awful things that happen out there,” Friter said candidly about the job of a sex crimes prosecutor.

Friter's cases were some of the most horrendous:

     In September 2014, a Springfield man was sentenced to five to 10 years in state prison, to be followed by five years’ probation, after he pleaded guilty to charges of rape and endangering the welfare of a child in connection with the knifepoint sexual assault of his ex-girlfriend while her child was nearby. Friter sought a lengthy prison sentence against the man.
   “It doesn’t get much worse than this in terms of a physically violent sexual assault,” Friter said at the time. “The victim believed she was not going to walk out of that house alive. This really combines the worst elements of the crimes that we see in the sexual assault unit. This combines horrendous physical violence, the threat of death and the ultimate violation of this victim’s body by sexually assaulting her and by doing that in front of a 2-year-old child just shows that this defendant had absolutely no regard for anybody but himself.”

    In June 2011, a 21-year-old Philadelphia man was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in state prison after he pleaded guilty to a felony charge of third-degree murder in connection with the 2010 death of his daughter inside a relative’s Plymouth Township residence. He admitted to causing the death of his 10-week-old daughter by recklessly shaking her, causing her to suffer traumatic brain injuries.
    “This was a man who we believe violently shook his 10-week-old daughter, causing her death. There can be no excuse or justification for that,” Friter said at the time. “The impact on the family is just unimaginable, the pain they have had to deal with, not only losing a child but losing a child in this way, at the hands of the father. Having to deal with that I can’t even begin to fathom what that’s like.”

     And over the years Friter prosecuted numerous individuals who possessed or shared child pornography on their home computers, many of whom are in jail today. Friter always was prepared to send home the message about the danger of such conduct.
     “His actions of downloading and storing child pornography create opportunities for children to be abused. Once these pictures are out there on the Internet they are permanent. Every time somebody downloads them, looks at them or pleasures themselves over them, they are re-victimized over and over again. He’s helping to maintain that market on the Internet where this dark and disgusting behavior goes on,” Friter argued recently during one offender’s sentencing hearing.

     
Jordan Friter
Before he was hired as a prosecutor, Friter, who grew up in Whitemarsh and attended Plymouth Whitemarsh High School, actually spent two summers while in law school as an intern in the district attorney’s office. Upon finishing law school he was hired as a prosecutor in 2009 by current District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman. Since 2010, Friter has been on the sex crimes team and two years ago he was promoted to chief of the unit.
     
     “The mentoring I received since I got here has been outstanding. It certainly has made me tougher as a human being. The people I got to work with in this office and the various law enforcement agencies in the county, everybody’s been nothing short of spectacular. Everyone is really dedicated to their jobs and it was great to see everybody working toward a common goal every day,” Friter said.

Along the way, Friter gained the respect of judges, fellow prosecutors and defense lawyers.
    “We both started the same day so our careers have been similar the past seven years, from internship to the present,” fellow Prosecutor Jason Whalley said. “He was a good colleague and a good friend. He was someone you could depend on at work and he took cases very seriously. I wish him the best in his future endeavors and I think he’ll do well wherever he goes.”

Prosecutor Sophia Polites, who also works on the sex crimes unit, commended Friter for devoting years of service to assisting victims of sex abuse and physical abuse.
     “He helped countless victims, adults and children, and walked them through the criminal justice system, a process that can oftentimes be very difficult,” Polites said. “As captain of the unit, he was a great mentor, teacher and someone that you could rely on to help, whether that was bouncing ideas off of or just being there when you needed him. His personality made him perfect for the job and he will be missed.”

Wendy Fuentes worked side by side with Friter on a daily basis as his administrative assistant.
     “He’s an amazing person. I’m going to miss him tremendously,” said Fuentes, adding other prosecutors “trusted him and turned to him for advice.” “He’s an all-around good person and his work ethic was wonderful.”

Deputy District Attorney Thomas McGoldrick said Friter “will be greatly missed.”
Deputy DA Thomas McGoldrick
     “He has a wonderful sense of ethics, really strong character and in the handling of his cases he had excellent judgment as a prosecutor,” McGoldrick said. “The position Jordan had was one of the most challenging in the office, running the sex crimes team. They are the most challenging types of cases we have and he did an excellent job handling them.”

Friter is joining the Mullaney & Mullaney Law Firm in Skippack. 

     From a personal standpoint, Jordan was always available for press questions and never dodged the press or the tough questions while his cases played out in court. He was always forthright, knowledgeable about the law, and he always treated reporters with respect, understanding we have jobs to do too. I always appreciated that about Jordan.

Congratulations, Jordan, on your new career endeavor. Here’s wishing you much success.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Sometimes Defendants Say the Darndest Things...

      (As a courtroom observer, there are times I think I've seen and heard it all. But then a defendant comes along and totally destroys that notion by spouting something shocking or humorous that makes my jaw drop or has me smiling with everyone else in the courtroom.
     On any given day there are numerous memorable comments made by defendants. Here are some recent utterances overheard by 'Mr. Everybody's Business' at the Montgomery County Courthouse:)


      A Narberth woman who last year made a memorable appearance in Montgomery County Court when she told the judge, “Next time I’m in front of a judge, I hope I’m getting married,” returned last week, but not for her nuptials. The 44-year-old woman , who once trespassed and stripped naked when a Lower Merion man with whom she claimed to have been “involved” ordered her from his home, was back in court to address charges she violated her previous sentences for criminal trespass and stalking.
     When Judge Steven T. O’Neill imposed a new sentence for the violation and inquired if there were any other men from whom the woman should be ordered to stay away, the woman smiled and blurted, “Don Tollefson,” eliciting smirks from some courtroom spectators. Ironically, the woman’s unusual, unexpected, off-the-cuff remark came a day after Tollefson, a 62-year-old former Philadelphia sportscaster, was convicted at a Bucks County Court trial of stealing money by offering fraudulent sports packages to away games for the Philadelphia Eagles and other sporting events.
    With Tollefson in jail while awaiting sentencing in Bucks, and she in a separate jail for the probation violation, there is no chance the woman will be having contact with Tollefson.
    On her way out of the courtroom in handcuffs, with a little help from sheriff’s deputies, the woman added to the humor, smiling at Judge O’Neill and telling him, “nice haircut.”

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      Wesley Aaron Davis Jr., 22, a Luzerne County man serving a four to eight year sentence for robbing a Lower Pottsgrove bank, also was back in a Montgomery County Courtroom recently when he testified at the trial of his co-conspirator, Ishaq Ibrahim. Davis came back to court to testify on Ibrahim’s behalf, claiming he didn’t know Ibrahim and that Ibrahim wasn’t present during the robbery. Davis testified that a man who is now deceased participated in the robbery with him.
     Ultimately, Judge Garrett D. Page didn’t buy Davis’ testimony and ended up convicting Ibrahim of robbery-related charges.
     Smiling on his way out of the courtroom after testifying, Davis had this to say about prison life, “Just living the life, man, living the life of a hardcore criminal, man, you know.”

Davis Video


Stay tuned. I'll let you know when the next defendant makes a memorable remark.