Monday, November 16, 2015

Beyond the Call of Duty

Defense lawyer Michael John recently went beyond the call of duty when he provided his client, Larry Westwood, of Reading, with one of his suits to wear to court for his trial on charges he assaulted his former girlfriend in Lower Pottsgrove.

Learning on a Friday that Westwood’s trial was to begin the following week and not having enough time over a weekend to check with the public defender’s office, which has a few suits available for indigent clients to borrow for court, to determine if there was a suit available for Westwood to wear, John quickly found another solution.
“I just figured it would be a whole lot easier if I just brought one of my nice suits that my client could wear for the trial,” John said recently, adding Westwood changed into the brown suit in the courthouse holding cell in time for his appearance in court. “He’s pretty much the same size. It’s a nice Jos. A. Bank suit.”
Larry Westwood in John's suit/ Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

John said Westwood, 74, formerly of the 500 block of Penn Street in Reading, was appreciative.
“He said, ‘That’s nice,’” John recalled.

Kudos to John for taking the extra step to help a client.

Incidentally, John also won an acquittal for Westwood on an attempted murder charge.
However, a jury, after a two-day trial, did convict Westwood of a lesser aggravated assault charge in connection with the ice pick attack of his girlfriend in her Lower Pottsgrove home during an argument.

Testimony revealed the woman suffered a puncture wound to her lower back and a scratch wound to her head during the Oct. 19, 2013, ice pick assault inside her Dogwood Court home after she told Westwood she wanted to end their relationship.

By acquitting Westwood of attempted murder jurors determined he did not intend to kill the victim when he attacked her with the ice pick. By convicting Westwood of two felony counts of aggravated assault, the jury determined that he attempted to cause serious bodily injury and caused bodily injury to the woman with a deadly weapon.
The jury also convicted Westwood of charges of simple assault, possessing an instrument of crime and terroristic threats. Judge Thomas P. Rogers will sentence Westwood sometime early next year.

No word on whether Westwood will be wearing one of John’s suits for his sentencing hearing.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Courting Awareness

As October comes to a close I just want to send a shout out to Rich Womelsdorf, the skilled trades manager for Montgomery County, for finding a way to bathe the courthouse in pink to acknowledge national Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Each evening as the sun set, the pink illumination caused all those who walked or drove by the courthouse to take a moment to remember loved ones who have suffered from the disease and to reflect on the fight that continues to end it.

According to the American Cancer Society, 1 in 8 women in the U.S. will develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime.

Every two minutes, a woman in the U.S. is diagnosed with breast cancer. The total number of breast cancer cases in the U.S. is forecast to be 50 percent greater in 2013 than it was in 2011, according to The Breast Cancer Research Foundation, and National Cancer Institute/American Association for Cancer Research.

Thanks, Rich, for doing something that helped serve as an inspiration to everyone in Montgomery County to continue to make a difference in the fight against breast cancer.

"Courting Awareness" -Courthouse Illumination was Front Page News!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Judge Comes To The Rescue

Prosecutors, defense lawyers and courthouse employees were buzzing Wednesday about what some characterized as the heroic efforts of Montgomery County Judge Steven T. O’Neill, who apparently didn’t think twice before springing into action after witnessing a car crash at a gas station on Montgomery Avenue in Lower Merion about 8 p.m. on Tuesday.
Montgomery County Courthouse

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.
Judge Steven T. O'Neill
By that time, emergency crews arrived and were able to get the woman out of the vehicle, sources said.

Part of the rescue reportedly was videotaped on a cell phone by a bystander and appeared on a local television station’s web site.

O’Neill, who is the administrative judge for criminal courts and who has presided over the county’s Drug Treatment Court since April 2006,  wouldn’t comment about the incident when I asked him about it on Wednesday, apparently not wanting to draw attention to his actions or the incident. He only offered, “The cop got her out. The cop clearly was the hero.”

But O’Neill’s courtroom staffers see it differently.
“He is a hero. He doesn’t want any attention or accolades but the man is a hero. He really is. Just my opinion,” O’Neill’s trusted court reporter Ginny Womelsdorf said upon hearing about the incident.
Court Reporter Ginny Womelsdorf/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

I have to agree with the defense lawyer, who was full of praise for the judge and who I overheard say, "Maybe the judge should turn his robe in for a cape."

Wow. The incident surely is an example of how we can’t predict what situations will come at us during our routine, daily lives. It’s how we respond that truly defines us.

O’Neill should be commended for his quick thinking and dramatic efforts to help a fellow citizen in trouble.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Supporting a Good Cause

Montgomery County prosecutors, public defenders and workers in other county departments often get involved with charitable work outside of their day jobs and should be congratulated and thanked for the support they give to charities countywide.

A good example, county Assistant District Attorney Lindsay O’Brien has been volunteering in her spare time to help plan the Superhero 5K/1 Mile Fun Run for Variety - the Children’s Charity of the Greater Delaware Valley, which provides services for kids with physical and developmental disabilities.

“This is one of the biggest fundraisers that Variety does every year and it’s one of the best ways to bring awareness about Variety,” said O’Brien, explaining the fundraiser is organized specifically by Young Variety, a board that is comprised of young professionals who assist the organization.

“I’m going to do the walk,” O’Brien laughed. “I’m not a runner.”
Montco Asst. District Attorney Lindsay O'Brien

In addition to prosecuting criminals by day, O’Brien is a board member of Young Variety during her off time and is part of the promotional committee for the upcoming run.

The event is being held at 8 a.m. Sept. 19 at Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. Registration opens at 6:30 a.m.

The Variety Club Camp and Development Center has had a lot of success building confidence in kids with disabilities at its 80-acre facility along Potshop Road in Worcester, Montgomery County. The Variety Club Camp, which serves youths between the ages of 5 and 21 with special needs, is a program offered by Variety’s Greater Philadelphia chapter, which is a branch of the national Variety nonprofit.

I think Cheryl Kehoe Rogers, content editor at The Times Herald, said it best in a column she wrote in May.

“Bottom line – Variety Club needs money. The parents and professionals that are really hands-on with Variety Club fundraising are doing everything they can to keep this beautiful place afloat. But, there are so many needs to be met...,” Rogers wrote, adding if Variety Club goes away “so do the programs for these great kids who don’t have a lot of options.”

The camp’s 80-acre facility operates as a day and overnight camp during the summer, and this season had about 200 campers a day at the facility, according to published reports. During the winter, the camp becomes a weekend retreat facility and offers a vocational program during the week.

“Variety has a camp that serves kids with developmental disabilities that allows kids who might not otherwise go to camp to go to camp during the summer at a place that’s specifically designed for their special needs,” O’Brien said. “It’s a charity that’s constantly in need of as much funding as it can get to be able to support the kids.”

Sponsorship opportunities for the run are also available. For more information about the race or to sign up, check out the website at

“We had a pretty good turnout last year,” said O’Brien, who hopes for a strong show of support during this Saturday’s run.

So put on your running or walking shoes and get out there to help a great organization.

And kudos to O'Brien for her charitable work.

'Bocce for Baldo' Raises Funds for Montco Sheriff's K9 Unit

Montgomery County Courthouse/Photo Carl Hessler Jr.

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department recently received more than $2,300 in donations, which will be used to purchase safety equipment for its K9 unit, during the second annual “Bocce for Baldo” memorial bocce tournament held Sept. 12 at the Holy Saviour Club in Norristown.

“We had great success with our bocce tournament this weekend!” proudly exclaimed Teresa Harris, public information assistant in the sheriff’s office.

The tournament was named after a former sheriff’s deputy, Corporal James Baldovsky, who passed away from cancer on March 9, 2014.  Baldovsky also previously worked as a Towamencin Township Police Department K9 officer. 

Baldovsky was known at the department as a passionate supporter of K9s.

Sheriff Russll J. Bono (l) poses with Baldovsky''s widow, Marie and  Deputy Thomas Franklin and K9 Behr/Photo courtesy of Sheriff's Department

From Left: Deputy Thomas Franklin and K9 Behr, Sheriff Russell J. Bono, Deputy Trevor Keller and K9 Artus, K9 Unit Leader Cpl. Richard Miles, and Deputy Sean Forsyth and K9 Bikkel./Photo Courtesy of Sheriff's Dept.
Baldovsky’s widow, Marie, joined the sheriff and members of the K9 Unit to dedicate a safety vest for K9 Behr, and to lay an inscribed bocce court brick near center court. 

Last year, the event raised $2,000, which was used to purchase protective vests for the department’s three K9s.

Kudos to the sheriff's department for keeping its canine partners protected.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency Receives Federal Grant to Study Impact of Diversion Programs

Diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration have been in the news a lot during the last several years, nationwide and locally.

Now comes word that the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD) has received competitive grant funds from the U.S. Department of Justice to study the impact of alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders with a drug and alcohol dependency. 

“We at PCCD are entrusted with ensuring that our programs and those we fund are effective and results-oriented,” said commission Chairman Josh Shapiro, a Montgomery County commissioner who was appointed to the state commission earlier this year. “This funding will allow us to measure the impact that these programs are having so we can continue working to improve the criminal justice system.”

Fifty-six counties throughout Pennsylvania receive PCCD funding in support of County Intermediate Punishment Programs that address alcohol and drug dependency among non-violent offenders. These programs support treatment as well as assessment, evaluation, case management, and supervision services for offenders, according to officials. The goal of these programs is to provide offenders with treatment to reduce recidivism rates, PCCD officials said.
Josh Shapiro/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

On average, PCCD supports the diversion of approximately 1,600 offenders annually from incarceration to Intermediate Punishment Programs, which equates to thousands of total jail days averted, officials said.
An initial study of the Intermediate Punishment Program also indicates a low recidivism rate for the participants (22%), demonstrating that the program has a positive impact on future behaviors.

The Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics has awarded PCCD $100,995 which will allow for a comprehensive study comparing offenders who participated in Intermediate Punishment Programs versus similar offenders who received incarceration sentences.

The study seeks to measure the impact of diversionary programs on recidivism in the Commonwealth against a control group. In addition, funds will be used for GIS-mapping projects to allow for greater accessibility for the public and decision-makers.

Just a note: Shapiro is also chairman of the board of commissioners in Montgomery County, where the court system has had a drug treatment court since April 2006. That program, funded by the county commissioners, is an innovative approach to disposing of drug-fueled criminal offenses in a way that offers participants intensive help to fight their addictions, encourages them to change their lifestyles and offers them the opportunity to earn a dismissal of the charges against them or to have their court supervision terminated early.

Participation in the program, which is voluntary, is at least 15 months long and may last as long as three years. The length of the program depends on how well an offender succeeds in dealing with the addiction and becoming a productive, crime-free citizen. The program, which is overseen by county Judge Steven T. O'Neill, typically has 130 participants at any given time.
Drug Court Gavel

Two years ago, I examined the county's drug court and found that, according to county statistics, between April 21, 2006, when the treatment court was implemented, and Dec. 5, 2012, when the program held its 43rd graduation ceremony, there were 186 graduates. During that time period, 33 of those graduates – or only about 18 percent – had been rearrested - meaning 82 percent of the drug court graduates remained arrest-free since their graduations. Non drug court addicts in the criminal justice system have a re-arrest rate of more than 60 percent, Judge O’Neill said at the time, echoing statistics cited by The National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Defenders Address Clients' Transitions Back to Society

Those who have done time behind bars for crimes often find it difficult to transition back home once they’ve paid their debt to society, including trouble finding employment and housing opportunities.

“The first thing is finding employment. There are many challenges for people with criminal histories. Employers are looking for stable people who will be there every day, who will fulfill their roles and bring benefits to the employer’s company,” said J. Jondhi Harrell, executive director and founder of 
The Center for Returning Citizens, a Philadelphia organization that helps people transition from incarceration to society. “Violence on a record can scare employers.”

According to the organization’s website it is “dedicated to restorative approaches in battling the effects of mass incarceration upon individuals, families and the community.” The organization embraces “a culture of hard work, family responsibility, community involvement, ethical behavior and social consciousness,” according to its website.

“We help them create a life plan and set goals. We provide a foundation for their lives. We find employment. We find housing,” said Harrell, adding the organization also assists former inmates with obtaining drug and alcohol or mental health counseling. “Whatever a person needs to sustain them in their day-to-day life, that’s our focus.”
J. Jondhi Harrell, executive director The Center for Returning Citizens

Harrell said the organization accomplishes its goals through programs that provide counseling for the children of incarcerated parents; provide social and educational opportunities for at-risk youth in communities; and assist citizens returning from prison, both male and female, and those who have been home for various time periods but are still suffering from mass incarceration and its effect on their transition to freedom.

In August, Harrell, at the request of county Assistant Public Defender Alexander De Simone, appeared in county court during a sentencing hearing for convicted robber William Lee Adams to tell a judge about the benefits of the special re-entry program.

Montco Assistant Public Defender Alexander De Simone
“We took a creative stand on sentencing. It’s a re-entry program,” De Simone told me, adding Adams, 48, previously spent 20 years in prison as a young man. “That’s the prime of your life. That’s when you learn what reality is and you learn how to deal with society at-large. He missed that. He didn’t have life skills, didn’t have job skills.”

After hearing Harrell’s testimony, Judge Garrett D. Page sentenced Adams, a Philadelphia man who robbed the TD Bank branch in Montgomery Township of about $6,700 in February 2014, to jail time but also ordered that he be paroled to the special re-entry program to help him transition back to society.

It was only the second time that public defenders have proposed TCRC as a sentencing tool. After hearing Harrell’s enlightening testimony, I suspect defenders may propose TCRC in the future for other clients. Credit must go to De Simone for bringing the unique program to the attention of the judge.

During the last several years, as criminal justice-related issues like mass incarceration and police and sentencing practices were discussed nationwide, the public defender’s office launched several initiatives aimed at improving indigent defense services and with a client-centered advocacy philosophy. Those initiatives have included holding expungement clinics and hiring its first social worker who helps defenders identify specific individualized rehabilitative options for clients during the court process.

“I hope for the best for Mr. Adams. I hope he sticks with the program and figures out how to live in society,” De Simone said after the judge ordered that Adams be paroled to the special re-entry program.
J. Jondhi Harrell (l) with Montco Assitant Public Defender Alexander De Simone/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Harrell said the organization has assisted 640 people since its inception in 2012 and currently is assisting 230 people.
“We have a small staff of about 4 to 5 people. But how we really do our work is through our volunteer staff. We have about 25 to 30 volunteers who represent a wide range of services. We have retired social workers, psychologists and counselors and mentors and they devote their time and energy because they believe in the mission and they believe in the philosophy,” Harrell said.

For more information about TCRC or to inquire about becoming a volunteer check out the organization’s website at