Monday, February 1, 2016

Montco Prepares for Cosby Hearing

Montgomery County Courthouse/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
Courthouse employees were buzzing today about entertainer Bill Cosby’s scheduled appearance here tomorrow for a hearing on his request to dismiss alleged sex assault charges lodged against him Dec. 30. Parking restrictions were set to go into effect outside the courthouse from 6 p.m. tonight until 4 p.m. Feb. 2 to make way for satellite trucks, from various new organizations, expected to converge on the courthouse overnight.

Cosby’s hearing gets underway at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow. Security will be tight and media restrictions are in place.

During what is expected to be a moment of high courtroom drama, newly-elected Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele, who on Dec. 30 charged Cosby with the alleged 2004 sexual assault of a woman at his Cheltenham home, will have to fight a defense claim that former District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. entered into a valid “non-prosecution” agreement with Cosby and his then lawyer in 2005.
Judge Steven T. O'Neill/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Judge Steven T. O’Neill must decide if the so-called non-prosecution agreement is valid and rule on a request by Cosby’s defense team to dismiss charges of aggravated indecent assault against Cosby.

O’Neill’s ruling will determine if the prosecution moves forward and if Cosby, 78, eventually has a preliminary hearing on the charges.

“The question is going to be whether or not that’s a legally binding contract between lawyers, which it may be, but then the next question is going to be whether or not that legally binding contract continues forward ad infinitum for the rest of our lives when a new regime comes in,” Cary B. McClain, a Lower Merion defense lawyer who is unconnected to the Cosby case, summed up the dilemma as a legal observer.
Defense lawyer Cary B. McClain/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

“Will a judge find that that agreement between Bruce Castor and Bruce Castor’s office is binding against Kevin Steele and Kevin Steele’s office? That’s the big question,” McClain added.

The legal duel, which is expected to attract worldwide media attention by celebrity watchers, pits against each other, in a very public forum, two political rivals who battled for the district attorney’s post during a sometimes heated campaign back in November. Castor, a 55-year-old Lower Salford Republican who served as district attorney from 2000 to 2008, lost his bid to regain the seat from Steele, a 48-year-old Lower Merion Democrat, in November’s contest.

District Attorney Kevin R. Steele/Submitted Photo

During the campaign, Steele, who was then first assistant district attorney, in a 30-second television ad,  attacked Castor for not charging Cosby in 2005 when former Temple University athletic department employee Andrea Constand first claimed Cosby sexually assaulted her at his Cheltenham home.

Castor has claimed there wasn’t enough “reliable and admissible” evidence to prosecute Cosby in 2005.

During an interview last November, after the election, Castor called Steele’s campaign tactics “appalling.”

“I believe the long term consequences of the behavior in this case will be severe and will have a dramatic and negative impact on the office’s ability to prosecute Cosby,” Castor said during a candid interview one day after losing the Nov. 3 election.

“Should they actually go ahead and arrest Cosby, I’d be very surprised if there weren’t a very contentious series of motions to disqualify the district attorney’s office by virtue of the fact that the new boss (Steele) has already told the public, in his opinion, that Cosby is guilty,” Castor said at that time. “I think that that will cause a monumental problem if in fact the county decides to go ahead against Cosby.
Bruce L. Castor Jr./submitted photo

“And they can’t very well refer the case to the attorney general since they’re prosecuting the attorney general,” Castor added in November, referring to the pending prosecution of Kathleen Kane for alleged perjury. “So since there’s no other option in Pennsylvania for prosecution, aside from the D.A. and the attorney general because we have no special prosecutor statute, I think a whole series of issues are injected into the case.”

Cosby’s lawyers have already asked a judge to disqualify Steele’s office from prosecuting Cosby.

All eyes will be on Castor if he indeed is called to testify at Cosby's hearing Tuesday.

Mr. Everybody’s Business and @MontcoCourtNews will be watching every move.

A Teachable Moment - Wasted

It was a teachable moment.
Montgomery County Courthouse

 Unfortunately, it was lost on the teens and twenty-somethings who packed the Montgomery County Courtroom last week of a 19-year-old Hatfield Township man who was acquitted of raping a North Penn High School student during a March 2015 teen drinking party at a home in Towamencin.

I can understand, during a moment of raw emotion, the jubilation - hugs and tears - that overflowed in the courtroom from the young man’s family and friends when the “not guilty” verdicts were announced by jurors at the trial at which the young man testified the sexual contact was consensual.

However, I cannot comprehend the actions of a few of the young man’s friends outside the courtroom, in the wake of the verdict.

As county Assistant District Attorney Kelly Lloyd left the courtroom, several young males, friends of the man who was acquitted, boldly uttered, "Prosecutors are sick" and "Walk of shame," just loud enough so Lloyd could hear it. Lloyd, with grace and composure, continued on her way as the young men sneered at her.

What was shameful was the conduct of the young men.  It was a shameful display. “Grow up,” I was prompted to tweet about the conduct on Twitter at that moment.

A Twitter follower responded: “Disgusting and disrespectful.”

Their disrespect only got worse once they got outside the courthouse. There, with the courthouse entrance as a backdrop, about eight young men and women posed for a photo in which they raised their arms and flashed their middle fingers, smiling proudly about their obscene gestures. That photo subsequently was posted to a social media site.


It’s okay to be pleased about a verdict but to show disrespect to others over the outcome of a verdict was just another example of the lack of civility that is all too common in society today.

According to Oxford Dictionaries, a teachable moment is “an event or experience that presents a good opportunity for learning something about a particular aspect of life.”

During the trial, testimony revealed friends of the alleged victim recorded cell phone videos of the young woman in an alleged drunken state, presumably to post on social media sites as a joke.

So, this is how they use social media today?

Testimony during the trial revealed that many at the party had been drinking heavily. Instead of learning valuable lessons from a very unpleasant trial – lessons about the dangers of excessive drinking and about how not to put oneself in situations that can have potentially life-altering consequences – some of the young trial spectators, with ugly bravado, chose to lash out at prosecutors with disrespectful comments.

A teachable moment wasted, for sure.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Retiring Judges Receive Well-Deserved Recognition

There were many poignant moments during three ceremonies this month as the three new judges in Montgomery County took their oaths of office. Heartwarming speeches were provided by the family and friends of Judges Risa Vetri Ferman, Daniel Clifford and Todd D. Eisenberg as the new judges officially donned their black robes for the first time.
Montgomery County Courthouse

But the most poignant moment, I believe, came when President Judge William J. Furber Jr. took the time to recognize the accomplishments of three judges who retired at the end of 2015, Judge Stanley R. Ott, Judge Bernard A. Moore and Judge Joseph A. Smyth Jr.

“Ladies and gentleman,” Furber addressed the crowd, “the investiture of new judges is always an exhilarating time for the court because it engenders an invigorating spirit and energizes the bench by virtue of an influx of fresh ideas from our new colleagues, which in turn tends to promote experimentation with new methods.”

“This dynamic creates opportunities to improve how justice is administered in a timely and transparent fashion. This natural progression is vital to the preservation of our system,” Furber continued.

“Although we welcome innovation and new blood I would like to take a moment this morning to acknowledge three of our colleagues whose most recent retirements graciously created the three vacancies which our newest members have filled,” Furber added.

“The legacies of these three men have created over almost three decades of devotion to the law and to the Bar and to the court and to the public. Their legacies are immeasurable. I speak, of course, of Judges Ott, Smyth and Moore,” said Furber, inviting the three respected jurists to rise from their seats at the bench.

The crowd of 250 or so spectators erupted into thunderous applause and a standing ovation, delivering respect and gratitude for the three jurists who smiled humbly. The recognition was well-deserved.

Smyth, who served as county district attorney from 1979 to 1984, was appointed to the bench in May 1984 by then Gov. Dick Thornburgh and he was elected to a full 10-year term in 1985. Smyth, a graduate of Temple University School of Law, was retained in 1995 and 2005, and he previously served as president judge.

Moore, a former assistant district attorney from 1970 to 1975, was elected to the bench for a 10-year term in 1989. A graduate of Temple University School of Law, Moore won retention elections in 1999 and 2009.

Ott, a graduate of Cornell University Law School, was elected to the bench in November 1987. He was retained in 1997 and 2007 and served as the administrative judge of the Orphans’ Court division.

Thank you, judges, for your service.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Kim White Bids Good-bye to her County Family

Montgomery County Courthouse/Photo Carl Hessler Jr.
After 27 years working for the Montgomery County court system, Kim White has said good-by to her county family.

White has seen a lot of courthouse changes during that time.

White, of Downingtown, began her career in 1989 as an unassigned court clerk, at a time when such clerks were paid on a per diem basis and received no benefits. That all changed around 1993, when county officials approved benefits packages for court clerks, who assist judges in the courtrooms on a full-time basis.

In 1994, White said she was “blessed” to be asked by then Judge Bernard A. Moore to sit as his assigned court clerk. For most of those years, Moore presided in Courtroom A, the ceremonial courtroom at the courthouse.

“I clerked for Judge Moore for 13 years. Working for Judge Moore was the best. He’s such a funny man behind the scenes. He’s a very contemporary man. He’s very private. But behind the scenes he’s a very, very nice person and very funny,” White said. “I enjoyed my time working every minute for Judge Moore. I was very blessed to have worked for Judge Moore.”
Kim White / Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Moore also retired Jan. 1.

“We both retired the same year. Who would have thought that?” White said.

In 2008, White was promoted to court clerk supervisor. There are 31 court clerks employed by the county and one sentencing guidelines clerk who were under White’s direction.

“I’m the type of person who likes to pass my knowledge on. I like other people to learn from my accomplishments and from what I have to offer,” White said. “It was a challenging experience. I enjoyed teaching, watching them develop. It helped me to become a manager.”

White said she will miss the employees and the job. But she's looking forward to her free time.

Kim White /Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
“I would like to spend time with my family and I want to have fun while I’m young,” said White, who laughed when she said she wouldn’t reveal her age but added after 27 years with the county she was eligible to retire.

Everyone at the courthouse wishes Kim a happy and fun-filled retirement.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Mystery Continues

While conducting my end of day checks of courtrooms late Tuesday afternoon, I suddenly heard thunderous applause coming from Courtroom A, the ceremonial courtroom at the courthouse. My interest aroused, I just had to investigate.
Montgomery County Courthouse/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Officials invited me to peek in.

Turns out newly-elected Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele was holding court, so-to-speak, proudly, passionately and warmly addressing his entire staff of prosecutors and detectives and some members of the law enforcement community, during what felt a bit like a pep rally. A few county officials and judges also were present at the informal gathering.

“It’s important for us to do this together, to dedicate to this together,” Steele urged the 150 or so staffers who packed the ceremonial courtroom. “The people of our community expect a lot from us. They expect us to be ministers of justice. I expect a lot from all of you.

“I’m not going to be easy on you but I will have your backs because we’re all in this together,” added Steele, telling all those in attendance that he looks forward to working with them. “We have an incredible opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Montgomery County DA Kevin R. Steele
Steele, the Lower Merion Democrat who won the post in November’s election after spending eight years as first assistant district attorney, told his staff that being ministers of justice comes with sacrifices.

“There are sacrifices and no one knows that better than my family,” Steele said to the standing-room-only crowd, urging his staff to have courage and to strive to do the right thing.

During the gathering, President Judge William J. Furber Jr. administered oaths of office to the entire staff of prosecutors and county detectives.

“Kevin, I wish you all the best as you go forward with this most important endeavor,” Furber said as the event came to a close.

Quoting from the “Star Wars” film he just saw over the weekend, Steele told his prosecutors, “’May the force be with you’ and let’s go do a great job.”

I, and I think everyone else in the room, was secretly wondering if Steele was going to make the “BIG” announcement, that being who he had selected as his first assistant, the second-in-command in his office, the district attorney’s go-to person.  
But it was not to be.

And so the mystery continues.

In recent history, incoming county district attorneys have had their first assistants in place on their first day in office. But as of Tuesday, the district attorney’s official letterhead still has only Steele’s name there. Steele appears to be keeping this decision close to the vest for now.

Since the New Year began, I’ve been asked on a daily basis by judges, lawyers and courthouse staff as to whether Steele has named his first assistant. It’s the number one inquiry folks are making as I make my daily rounds in the halls of justice. It’s unbelievable the amount of interest that’s swirling around the courthouse regarding that one decision.

Naturally, rumors abound, and there have been plenty. It’s the best kept secret, that’s for sure.

So, as I posted last week on Twitter, we’re still #WAITING

Stay tuned.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Goodwill, Paying It Forward, Plentiful This Season at Courthouse

Goodwill is everywhere during the holidays at the county courthouse. Collection barrels for Toys for Tots, the district attorney's Holiday Coat Drive and SPCA Holiday Drive and the Lt. Patty Simons Law Enforcement Food Drive dot the courthouse hallways and are filling up fast, signs of generosity among employees and visitors to the courthouse.

Christmas at the courthouse/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
But two courthouse employees recently gave new meaning to "goodwill toward men" and "paying it forward." 

Anne Schools and Susie Sobotka, two Court Administration employees well-known at the courthouse for their contagious sense of humor, often joked as they left work and passed the ATM on the plaza level, “Look, there’s a $20, grab it!” But on one particular day last month, it was no joke.

“I said, ‘Susie there really is a twenty in there,’” Schools, a writ clerk, recalled. “We looked and it happened to be $40. It was lying right in the tray. I was shocked because we always joke about it. To see it, was like, ‘Oh my God!’ We decided we better go to security because it belonged to somebody.”

Susie Sobotka (on left) & Anne Schools/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
“Ever since the ATM machines were placed at the courthouse we’ve joked about it. I ran over and I pulled it out, and there were two twenties,” Sobotka, a receptionist, recalled. “Couldn’t believe it.”

While some surely would have pocketed such a find, Schools and Sobotka took the money to courthouse security officials for safekeeping.

In the meantime, later that evening, Elizabeth Oreo, court clerk for President Judge William J. Furber Jr., was at a restaurant and when it came time to pay her bill she realized the $40 she had withdrawn from the ATM, and thought she had put in her purse, was nowhere to be found. A sinking feeling came over her when she realized she had taken her ATM receipt but never collected the cash that dropped into the ATM tray.
The following day, Oreo, believing it was a longshot she would ever see her cash again, checked with security officials and learned that Schools and Sobotka had turned it in.

“I was so happy and flabbergasted to find out cash that I withdrew from the ATM machine, and I thought was lost, was returned to me,” Oreo told me recently. “I was shocked that the money was returned to me, but after finding out the names of the two employees that found the money and did this good deed by turning it in to security, I was not.
Elizabeth Oreo/Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

“Once again, honesty is the best policy and two of our Montgomery County employees, Anne and Susan, are proof of that,” Oreo added. “So kudos to Anne and Susan and thank you again for all you do!”

Oreo was so grateful she showed her own kindness and generosity by offering to treat Schools and Sobotka to lunch with a cash reward, which they would not accept. Instead Schools and Sobotka suggested donating the reward money to charity, specifically the Toys for Tots program overseen by the sheriff’s department. Oreo loved the idea.

“I think it’s wonderful to pay it forward. I’m glad that it’s going to go to help the unfortunate children for Christmas, to make their Christmas a little brighter,” Sobotka said.
“We paid it forward,” Schools added. “It makes me feel great. 'Tis the season, right?”

Indeed Anne and Susie and Liz. You all did good things and are shining examples of the kindness and generosity that should abound during the holiday season. May you all find the joy you so richly deserve this holiday season and be treated with the same kindness you deliver to others year round.


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.