Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Mother's Tears and a Letter of Grief

     You could have heard a pin drop last week in a Montgomery County courtroom when a mother's anguished words, read by a prosecutor to a judge, filled the courtroom where one of the men responsible for her son's murder was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Montgomery County Courthouse/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
    Gloria Watson's grief was palpable.
    While Watson, of New York, was not able to join other relatives in the courtroom on that day, Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Strubel read a victim impact letter penned by Watson, whose son, Vincent Taylor, also known as Victor Baez, was gunned down outside a Pottstown bar on March 22, 2013. With each word uttered, the eyes of some of Taylor's relatives shed another tear.
     The entirety of Watson's heartbreaking letter could not be included in a typical news account of the day's events. So, I thought I would share all of those sorrowful words here to give readers a better understanding of the pain that is suffered by those left in the wake of the tragedy of murder.

"To whom it may concern,

     Where do I start? This is the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life. My eldest son, Vincent Taylor, was murdered on March 22, 2013. Everything in my life changed that very moment I got the news. I have not been the same since.
     I have cried every day since that day. Every time I remember him I cry. If he was sick for a long time I would have at least had time to prepare myself that may be, may be he could die. How does a mother accept the death of her child? You bond with that child from the womb and see that child growing up and becoming a man, only to lose him so senselessly.
     An empty void has been left in my heart that will never ever be filled. There was only one Vincent and to me he was everything. He loved life and loved having fun.
     To you who murdered my son, I say to you, you did not only put my son in the grave, but the family who loved him and cared for him, our lives have changed also. I don't imagine that you even gave thought that your life would have changed too. The only difference is you are still alive and if you have a family they can still come and talk to you, but you are obviously dead inside to yourself and to the world for you have committed murder.
     Your life has changed also from that moment because you will no longer have a freedom to make something of yourself, but that your every dignity will be taken away from you and you will now become part of a world of an animal and to be caged. I hope you will have that time to experience all the indignities that you switched your very life for.
     May God have mercy on your soul." - Gloria Watson

     (NOTE: Michael Romain Hinton, 27, of Norristown, was convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to a mandatory life sentence for his role in Vincent Taylor's death. Hinton's cousin, Maurice Laverne Andrews Jr., 20, of Pottstown, was convicted of third-degree murder in connection with the slaying and is scheduled to be sentenced next month.)

Friday, September 19, 2014

New Guidelines for District Court Judges

                                                                 
   The 30 magisterial district judges, or as I still call them district court judges, in Montgomery County now have new guidelines to govern their actions while on the bench and outside the courtroom.
    According to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, the policies are part of a revised version of the Rules Governing Standards of Conduct of Magisterial District Judges that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania issued this week. The new rules take effect Dec. 1.
    The guidelines are designed to bring greater clarity to rules affecting the conduct of Pennsylvania's district court judges, rules that have not changed significantly in 40 years, officials said. The guidelines complement a similar rules overhaul approved earlier this year applicable to conduct standards for trial and appellate judges that had been in place without revision since 1973, according to a press release from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
  
     The new set of rules for district court judges mirror many of the rules for trial and appellate judges that took effect last month. Much of the updating was based on language used in a model judicial code adopted by the American Bar Association and guidelines used in other states.
    "We are fully committed to maintaining the public's trust and confidence in the judicial system," Chief Justice of Pennsylvania Ronald D. Castille said. "These updates help enhance the integrity of our court system so its fairness can remain beyond question."
    The rules differ from the recently adopted rules for other judges in Pennsylvania because district court judges are not required to have a law degree and they may have outside employment that does not conflict with their judicial duties, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
    Judges who violate the rules can be suspended or removed from office. A judicial disciplinary process laid out in the state constitution provides for an independent agency - the Judicial Conduct Board - to investigate misconduct complaints about judges and prosecute misconduct violations when appropriate.
    There are a total of 526 district court judges statewide, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
    The new code of conduct essentially consists of four canons that discuss judicial ethics. They are:

     CANON 1 - A MAGISTERIAL DISTRICT JUDGE SHALL UPHOLD AND PROMOTE THE INDEPENDENCE, INTEGRITY, AND IMPARTIALITY OF THE JUDICIARY, AND SHALL AVOID IMPROPRIETY AND THE APPEARANCE OF IMPROPRIETY.

     CANON 2 - A MAGISTERIAL DISTRICT JUDGE SHALL PERFORM THE DUTIES OF JUDICIAL OFFICE IMPARTIALLY, COMPETENTLY AND DILIGENTLY.

    CANON 3 - A MAGISTERIAL DISTRICT JUDGE SHALL CONDUCT THE MAGISTERIAL DISTRICT JUDGE'S PERSONAL AND EXTRAJUDICIAL ACTIVITIES TO MINIMIZE THE RISK OF CONFLICT WITH THE OBLIGATIONS OF JUDICIAL OFFICE.
 
   CANON 4 - A MAGISTERIAL DISTRICT JUDGE OR CANDIDATE FOR JUDICIAL OFFICE SHALL NOT ENGAGE IN POLITICAL OR CAMPAIGN ACTIVITY THAT IS INCONSISTENT WITH THE INDEPENDENCE, INTEGRITY, OR IMPARTIALITY OF THE JUDICIARY.

    To view a complete list of the rules and for more information about the Code of Conduct readers can visit The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania's website at www.PACourts.us













Friday, September 5, 2014

Pottstown native Nicholas Reifsnyder is moving on...


     Pottstown-area native and Hill School graduate Nicholas Reifsnyder, who worked in the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office for more than seven years, first as a summer intern while in law school and later as an assistant prosecutor, is moving on to a new challenge. Reifsnyder is joining the law practice of James P. Lyons in Maple Glen where he will concentrate on criminal defense work.
     "He's a local defense attorney and he's one of the best we have so it's an honor and a privilege to be working with him," Reifsnyder said recently as he prepared to leave the DA's office.
     Reifsnyder rose through the ranks as a prosecutor, working his way from the pre-trial division to the economic crimes unit, to the drug unit and then was promoted to the major crimes unit where he was captain of the elder abuse division. Reifsnyder summed up his time as a prosecutor as "fantastic."
     "It's a great place to work. You're working with very bright and very talented people, people who really believe in what they do. The bosses are great people to work for," said Reifsnyder, referring to District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, First Assistant District Attorney Kevin R. Steele and Deputy District Attorney Thomas McGoldrick. "All-in-all it was a magnificent experience and I wouldn't trade these last seven years for the world."
     Reifsnyder was born in N.J. but his parents moved to the Pottstown area when he was in the second grade and he attended local public schools and also attended St. Aloysius Catholic school. He is a 2000 graduate of The Hill School. He completed his undergraduate studies at Harvard University and graduated from Temple University Law School.
Nicholas Reifsnyder on his last day as a Montco prosecutor. Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
     Those he worked with in the office praised Reifsnyder for his legal acumen and friendly nature.
     "He was someone who was diligent. He was intelligent, he spotted issues. He was someone that the younger people counted on to go to for advice and he will be missed," said Assistant District Attorney Jason Whalley, who worked with Reifsnyder on the drug unit and considers him a friend. "He understood the issues, he prepared and was a good teammate when we were both on the same unit."
     Fellow prosecutor Jordan Friter, who leads the district attorney's sex crimes unit, recalled he and Reifsnyder began their jobs as prosecutors on the same day.
     "Nick is one of the smartest people I have ever had the opportunity to work with. We always bust his chops about going to Harvard," Friter joked. "He keeps the mood of the office light all the time and we're going to miss him a lot."
     Friter said it will be "strange" to appear against Reifsnyder in a courtroom battle.
     "It is strange. When you come into the office you never think about that actually happening but now it's a reality and he's got a job to do and I look forward to going against him," Friter added.
     At the notion of going up against his former colleagues, Reifsnyder said, "Everyone's got a job to do. They have a job to do. I'm going to have a job to do and one of the good things about the people in the office is they don't tend to take things personally. They understand that the defense bar has a job to do just like they do. It might be a little bit weird at first but I think that that will disappear pretty quickly."
     Prosecutor Kathleen Colgan recalled she was a certified legal intern in the office when Reifsnyder accompanied her during her very first court appearance.
     "Nick is a brilliant attorney and I've learned an immeasurable amount by working with him," Colgan said. "Nick has a brilliant legal mind and he had the ability to explain complicated nuances of the law to an intern in a way that I was able to understand it as a very young attorney. He's continued to be a mentor to me."
     Others had this to say as Reifsnyder said his farewells to the office.
     "Nick Reifsnyder was a huge asset to our office and we're definitely going to miss him," said Assistant District Attorney Kristen Feden. "He was an excellent prosecutor, very passionate about his cases."
     "Nick was a great guy to work with and he was always willing to help out with a case," added prosecutor Laura Adshead.
    "Nick was a tremendous prosecutor who demonstrated an extraordinary knowledge of the law and was a powerful presence in the courtroom," said fellow prosecutor Jeremy Abidiwan-Lupo.
     Several years ago, Reifsnyder helped prosecute a Pottstown merchant who sold synthetic marijuana from his downtown convenience store, a crime that ended in a state prison term for the store owner. The prosecution of the store owner and a business associate were an outgrowth of the investigation of a May 2012 double-fatal wreck on State Street in Pottstown during which the driver of the vehicle was driving under the influence of synthetic pot, known as K2, which had been purchased at the store.
     That prosecution marked the first time that a store operator was charged in the county with selling K2 under a state law that went into effect in August 2011 and criminalized such activity.
     "It was a privilege," Reifsnyder said, to participate in that important prosecution.
     Ironically, one of Reifsnyder's legal foes during that case was Lyons.
     "It's a new challenge," Reifsnyder said about his decision to turn to criminal defense work. "I'm looking forward to being able to make sure that people are getting fair trials. You've got to put the commonwealth's evidence to the test. I hope to give the people that I represent the best representation that I possibly can."
     From a personal standpoint, Reifsnyder was always available for press questions and never tried to dodge the press while his cases played out in court. And he always treated reporters with respect, understanding we have a job to do too.
     I look forward to reporting about Reifsnyder's defense career.
     Congratulations, Nick. Best of luck.





    


Monday, August 11, 2014

Matthew Quigg, moving on....

                                                             
Montgomery County Courthouse
Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
 
After years of putting robbers and rapists behind bars, Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Matthew Quigg is leaving the prosecutor's office to enter the field of criminal defense. Quigg, who has joined the practice of well-known defense lawyer Timothy Woodward, also a former prosecutor, will be missed by his colleagues.
 
    "I think Matt has been a stellar prosecutor. He has committed himself to this job at the highest level. He has a wonderful sense of judgment and perspective. He is one of those people I often hear praise about from others who come in contact with him, that he's fair, balanced and easy to deal with," District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said last week as Quigg prepared to leave the office. "When I look at his overall body of work here, I think he exemplifies what it is to be a prosecutor."
    Ferman said Quigg has been a mentor to other prosecutors just beginning their careers and that his institutional knowledge will be missed.

Former Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Matthew Quigg
Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
                                           

   "I think it's part of the lifecycle of an office like ours. People come and they stay for a period of time and they contribute so much and then they move on to other parts of their career. While I'm sad to see Matt go, I'm also very pleased to see him joining with another former member of the office who also operates at the highest levels of practice and professionalism."
   Assistant District Attorney Kelly Lloyd said Quigg was the "go to" man in the office.
   "He's an amazing trial attorney. It's a huge loss for our office to see him go. He's definitely got excellent judgment and great character and I'm sure that he'll maintain those when he goes to the defense side," Lloyd said.
   Prosecutor Stewart Ryan worked closely with Quigg, who was captain of the firearms unit, on several major prosecutions.
   "I do view him as a mentor. He is somebody that all young ADAs go to for advice about cases and legal issues that we may not be familiar with. He is able to give sound advice about all of those," said Ryan, who started with the office in August 2012. "I leaned on him, not just when I was on the firearms unit, but before I got there, for advice. He's the person that has always led by example."
   Deputy District Attorney Thomas McGoldrick hired Quigg as an intern and Quigg spent several summers at the district attorney's office while in law school.
   "I knew from the moment I interviewed him for the internship that we had a quality individual that I would want to someday be part of the office. He kept coming back every summer for about five years. We just had to wait for him to get all the way through law school and pass the bar exam. As soon as he did that he had a job here. He had earned that long before he ever became a lawyer," McGoldrick recalled.
   Before he left, Quigg told me he found the work as a prosecutor rewarding and indicated he'll never forget his experience with the district attorney's office or the people he worked with day in and day out.
   Current prosecutors will have a worthy foe when they have to go up against Quigg, who will continue to be a familiar face at the courthouse in the role of defense lawyer.
   Congratulations, Matt, on your next career endeavor.
   
   
   
 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Montco DA Elected to Leading Role in Professional Association

                                                                  
 
Montgomery County Courthouse/Mercury photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
 
    
    Montgomery County’s top law enforcer will play a leading role in the professional association that provides training for prosecutors and information on legal and legislative issues.
    District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman has been elected by her peers to the post of vice-president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association for the 2014-2015 business year. Ferman’s election took place last week during the association’s annual business meeting.
    During the meeting, Union County District Attorney D. Peter Johnson was elected president of the association while Lebanon County District Attorney  David Arnold was elected secretary-treasurer for 2014-15.
    Ferman, previously secretary-treasurer of the association, said she was honored to be elected by her colleagues as vice-president.
    "It's been a privilege to serve on the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association's Executive Committee  for the past few years and I look forward to working with our new president, Union County District Attorney Pete Johnson, and our other officers and executive committee members to advance our mission to seek justice across the commonwealth," Ferman said during an interview this week.
    Ferman explained the association has a long history of identifying reforms of the criminal justice system and establishing best practices for prosecutors statewide.
Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman
Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
 

    "As vice-president, I expect to be much more involved in supporting our legislative agenda. Some of the issues that I anticipate dealing with over the next year or so include the continued expansion of our network of child advocacy centers so that every child in Pennsylvania has access to a child advocacy center," Ferman said. "I believe we'll be devoting a good deal of effort to crime prevention programs that focus on prescription drug and heroin abuse. From what we're seeing across Pennsylvania, this is one of our greatest epidemics."
    In a press release, association officials recently said the PDAA successfully led efforts to: reform Pennsylvania's child protection laws; establish historic, first-time state funding for children's advocacy centers; and create a statewide prescription drug return and disposal program  to help fight prescription drug abuse.
   The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association is comprised of approximately 1,000 members and is charged with providing uniformity and efficiency in the discharge of duties and functions of Pennsylvania’s 67 district attorneys and their assistants. Founded in 1912, the association sponsors extensive training programs and reports legal and legislative developments of importance to Pennsylvania prosecutors.
   "The Pennsylvania District Attorney's Association plays an important role in protecting the integrity of our profession and helping to preserve, protect and advance Pennsylvania's criminal justice system," said Johnson, first elected Union County District Attorney in 1995. "As president, I am firmly committed to continuing the association's work and always adhering to the prosecutor motto to do the right thing, for the right reasons." 
   Prior to his election as district attorney, Johnson served as an assistant district attorney and conducted a general law practice. Born and raised in Erie, Johnson is a graduate of the Dickinson School of Law (1984) and Gannon College (1979).
   Ferman, a Republican and career prosecutor who spent 15 years climbing the ranks in the district attorney’s office, was elected the county’s first female district attorney in 2007. Ferman began her career with the district attorney’s office in January 1993 and cut her prosecutorial teeth in the pre-trials division, ran the sex crimes unit, oversaw homicide, wiretap and grand jury investigations and supervised the trials division as a deputy district attorney before being appointed second in command by former District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. in 2002.
   A 1983 graduate of Abington High School, Ferman received a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Pennsylvania in 1987 and graduated from Widener University School of Law in 1992.
   Ferman was an intern with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1991.
   Ferman, who lives in Abington, also is a founder of the Montgomery Child Advocacy Project, which provides pro bono legal representation for children who are victims or witnesses of abuse. She also helped lead the effort to open “Mission Kids,” a child advocacy center for abused children.
  
  
 
 
    
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Monday, June 30, 2014

'Dare To Be Different' - Montco Prosecutor Inspires Youth

 
     Offering messages of hope and encouragement, Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Joseph Green II recently returned to Philadelphia's inner city where he grew up, to inspire young people to acquire a strong educational foundation to prepare themselves for a successful future.
     Green was invited to provide a commencement address at James R. Ludlow School in North Philadelphia, which he attended as an elementary school student. Green told me he saw it as an opportunity to "nurture" and to "pour something positive into the minds of our youth that may make a difference."
     "I take that very seriously because it could be a game-changing moment, a life-changing moment. I hoped to convey that they can be successful that if I can do it, they can do it," said Green, who entitled his address, "Dare To Be Different." "The norm in the inner city is chaos and I told them that just because there's chaos they don't have to become chaotic. I told them that there's a lot of love and that there are persons in the inner city who care about education - teachers and parents in the community."
 
                           Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Joseph Green II
                                                                     Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

     The 18 graduates were leaving the 8th grade and moving on to high school.
     "High school doesn't start until September. Just because school is out doesn't mean that you have to sit on the step all day listening to Kanye West and Nicki Minaj," Green recalled telling the students. "There's nothing wrong with going to the Free Library and picking up a book or two and reading it over the summer. Books will assist you in the development of your learning as it relates to your reading comprehension. Books are also inspirational but most of all books can take you places that some of us have never been. Dare to be different.
     "Don't be around the nonsense. Don't be around the foolishness, I told them," Green recalled.
     Telling students to 'dare to be different' when choosing friends, Green mentioned to them that he recently prosecuted two young men for attempted robbery and burglary, one of whom had a scholarship to play football at a university this fall.
     "This young man was most likely on his way. But he chose the wrong road," Green told the students, adding a collegiate atmosphere can offer a spirit of healthy academic competition, a diversity of ideas and lasting friendships from all walks of life. "Be wise in your choices in who you make your friends. Dare to be different."
     Green pointed out that some studies by behavioral and educational analysts have suggested that the ills that plague the inner city - low income, single parent households and crime - correlate to poor academic performance. Candidly, Green told the students, "I'm not supposed to be here because according to the naysayers I was a child at-risk."
     That, Green said, was his motivation to graduate high school and to go on to college and law school.
     Grabbing their attention, Green candidly shared that he was from their community and the ills that plagued the community were a part of his life, including having relatives who were murder victims.
     "I once sat where you are now sitting. So if I can do it, with all the things that I've been through, you can do the same," Green recalled telling the students. "That's what I wanted to convey to them."
     "We're all familiar with the educational and behavioral ills that plague the inner city and one of those ills is the stereotype that education is not a priority," recalled Green, who told the graduating students they are products of parents who do provide encouragement  for student achievement and who place a value on the importance of education. "I know firsthand that there is a lot of sacrifice, hard work and love that comes from inside of our North Philadelphia homes. I said continue to dare to be different."
     Green, always impeccably dressed in court and wearing his trademark bow tie, explained first impressions are lasting impressions and urged the students to have respect for others.
     "Know your capabilities as well as your limitations and don't be afraid to ask for help," Green reminded the students. "Seek out mentors and work hard."
     "I also talked to them about the Internet and having the world at their fingertips if they use the Internet positively," Green recalled.



 
Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Joseph Green II
   


Green, a father of three whose wife is a school principal in New Jersey, entered his alma mater's gymnasium behind the students during the graduation procession








     "As I began to walk it took me to like a 'Back to the Future' type moment. It gave me goose bumps. It was my educational foundation," Green reflected. "It took me back to the time when I was matriculating at their level. The faces of the teachers were different but the goals were still the same, to prepare them for the next stage in their educational development."
     Green, whose grandmother was once a janitor at the school and who still lives in the community, was greeted with a standing ovation after his address.
    A month before he addressed the graduates, Green even met with the students who wouldn't be graduating this year to impart to them the importance of education.
    "They sent me some thank you letters. I actually connected with them," Green said happily. "If you reach just one it becomes infectious, because that one can reach someone else."


Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Joseph Green II
  





     Kudos and thanks to Green for being a mentor and inspiring others as part of his devotion to public service.
 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Flag Retirement Ceremony a Success

     As June 14th and the Flag Day holiday approached, for some Montgomery County organizations it was an appropriate time to retire tattered and torn American flags, many of which were collected at the county courthouse in a special flag drop-off box during the last year.
    "We found that people would go and buy new flags and then wonder, ‘What do we do with our old American flags?’ A lot of people don’t know the proper method to retire a flag,” Stan Sarnocinski Jr., of the Patriotic Order Sons of America, Washington Camp 523 of Eagleville, said recently when I interviewed him about the drop-off box. “You never throw an American flag in the trash. That’s disrespectful.”
                                                      

        Stan Sarnocinski Jr. of the Patriotic Order Sons of America, Washington Camp 523 of Eagleville/ Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

     During the last year, about 400 tattered flags were left in the courthouse drop-off box, said Sarnocinski, who works for the county's purchasing department as supply room supervisor. On Sunday, June 8, those flags were among 4,000 that were properly retired during a solemn ceremony sponsored by Camp 523 and Camp 387 of Schwenksville, and Boy Scout Troop 105 of Schwenksville, in the meadow behind the Schwenksville Fire Co. off Route 29.
     "Over 4,000 flags were properly retired and then the ashes were buried up at Heidelberg Cemetery in Schwenksville," Sarnocinski said. "It shows the public the proper way to retire an American flag and it keeps them out of landfills. We do it every year around Flag Day."
      The Boy Scouts cut each stripe and cut the stars, explaining what each stripe and star means, and then burn them in proper fashion.


Flag Retirement Ceremony, Schwenksville, Pa. Photo Courtesy of Stan Sarnocinski Jr.

 
     Several dozen people attended the ceremony, including state Rep. Marcy Toepel, the Republican who represents the 147th District, who spoke about the meaning of the flag.
     "It makes me proud," said Sarnocinski, referring to the ceremony.

              

Boy Scout Troop 105 of Schwenksville participate in June 8 flag retirement ceremony. Photo courtesy Stan Sarnocinski Jr.

      Sarnocinski, currently the national vice-president of the Patriotic Order Sons of America, the oldest patriotic organization in the U.S., founded in 1847, urged citizens to continue to drop off their tattered and torn flags in the boxes sponsored by the organization so they can be properly retired during next year's ceremony.
     The Order also sponsors 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.
     "We get some unique flags. We have had a lot with 48 stars, the old flags that people have been holding onto," said Sarnocinski, the recording secretary of Washington Camp 523.

     Kudos to Mr. Sarnocinski and all those who participated in this very patriotic event!