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!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Meet A Future Journalist...

     While on the Montgomery County Courthouse news beat last month, I had a shadow - Germantown Academy senior Cliff David, who was interested in learning about the life of a court and crime journalist as part of his senior project. Cliff, 18, of Ambler, was extremely inquisitive as he roamed the courtrooms with me searching for the latest crime/justice stories and so he should do well if he decides this challenging profession, that is changing daily with new innovations in digital reporting, is right for him.
     "I've always been interested in writing and journalism, in particular, so I'm hoping I get to see some up-close journalism for the first time in my life and see how it works behind the scenes," Cliff told me during a break one day as we scoured the courthouse for breaking news. "I've always wanted to learn how it works and I think this is a cool way to get inside of it."
                              Cliff David starts his day at Montgomery County Press Room
                                                                          Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

     While enrolled at Germantown Academy, Cliff has written for the school newspaper, Germantown Academy Times, and studied AP English and is part of the writing center program. When he heads to Trinity College, a private, liberal arts school in Hartford, Conn., in the fall, he's contemplating majoring in journalism or American studies, which he describes as an interdisciplinary field that incorporates history, English and literature.
     During his time at the courthouse, Cliff was able to observe the trial of a man accused of domestic violence and observed two Philadelphia men admit their roles in a disturbance prosecutors said was akin to the "Wild Wild West" that ended with a drive-by shooting in Lansdale during which a man suffered a gunshot wound to the arm. Additionally, Cliff watched Judge Garrett D. Page call his trial list and got a chance to chat with the judge behind the scenes.
     KYW News Radio Reporter and Suburban Bureau Chief Brad Segall provided Cliff with a lesson in how to produce a radio news report from his small news studio in the courthouse press room. Finally, District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman also took time to discuss with Cliff the dynamics of how a district attorney's office interacts with the media, handles press calls and breaks news at press conferences.

                               Cliff David meets Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman
                                                                                 Mercury Photo/Carl Hessler Jr.

     Cliff said he's always been interested in politics and political reporting and he's a fan of political satirists Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart and how they inform the public "about things that are very important." But being at the courthouse a few days also seemed to spark Cliff's interest in crime and justice reporting, something he didn't think too seriously about previously.
     "I think definitely now that I've been here I would be interested in it, it's actually something that matters to your community. It's really exciting. It's a lot more active than I thought it would be, you keep moving around from court to court and see a lot of things," said Cliff, who easily kept up with me as we burned shoe leather running from courtroom to courtroom. "It's very exciting. I like writing and I like journalism so I'll follow that path and see where it takes me."
     Cliff sent me a note the other day, indicating he enjoyed his brief stint here in the press room of the courthouse.
     "It was an extremely valuable experience for me that I'm sure I will remember and look upon while I make decisions regarding what I'll end up doing someday," Cliff wrote.
     I want to take this time to thank Cliff for showing an interest in the profession and we in the press corps enjoyed having him around. We wish him much success in his future and have no doubt he'll flourish in any profession he chooses.
    Additionally, thanks to the judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, other courthouse employees and fellow journalists who assisted in showing Cliff what it's like to work in a place where crime, justice and news intertwine.


Wednesday, April 30, 2014

In Memoriam: James W. Staerk

                                           James W. Staerk /Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

     The news was shocking when it reached the Montgomery County Courthouse on Good Friday. Former Assistant District Attorney James W. Staerk had passed away in South Carolina on April 17, just one day shy of his 55th birthday and just two years after he retired from a prosecutorial career that spanned 27 years. Those who worked with the gentleman affectionately known as "Jim" walked the hallways of the courthouse in the days that followed with saddened faces, but wonderful memories, as they grappled with the unexpected news of their friend's passing.
     "We're all deeply saddened. Jim was an icon in the Montgomery County legal community. His knowledge of the law and the way that he dealt with people and the respect that he treated everybody with, is really what I think, everyone will remember, especially his sense of humor and his overcoming all the obstacles that he did in order to become such an icon here in Montgomery County," said Assistant District Attorney Matthew Quigg.
     Believed to be one of only a few prosecutors nationwide who plied their legal skills from a wheelchair, Jim never let his physical condition define him or keep him from realizing his goals as a dedicated public servant. A neuromuscular disease called spinal muscular atrophy, which became apparent when Jim was a young child, resulted in his using a wheelchair since he was 8.
     But it wasn't the wheelchair that colleagues, legal adversaries and jurors noticed. It was Jim's reputation as a tough, yet fair, reasonable man who had a combination of courage and humility, that stood out. District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman once told me Jim was "one of the most inspirational and extraordinary" people she'd ever met.
     Ferman said Jim was an "example of grace in a challenging circumstance."
     "Jim took me under his wing when I was in the pretrials division, taught me all about forfeitures and taught me about criminal prosecution in general," Assistant District Attorney Kathleen Colgan recalled this week. "He had an extremely sharp, legal mind, an even sharper wit and a huge heart. He will be greatly missed."
     Jim's quips were infamous and I witnessed many of them as I covered him in court.
     Shortly before he retired in the summer of 2012, Jim used drug forfeiture laws to seize convicted drug smuggling pilot James Handzus' 1959 Piper Comanche single engine aircraft, which was christened "My Lady." While arguing to have the plane forfeited Jim suggested to the judge, "It is time for Mr. Handzus to kiss his lady goodbye." Jim always nailed it in court.
     A 1977 graduate of Abington High School, Jim had a love of law enforcement that was deeply rooted in family. His father and uncle both served the public as Abington cops. Jim once told me being a prosecutor was "a good fit" for him.
     "He was inspired to be in law enforcement his whole life," recalled defense lawyer Jon Fox, who is also a former county commissioner. "He's a man who had a disability but he didn't think so and he inspired others to do their best, to keep a sense of humor and to make sure that whatever he did was to help the citizens of Montgomery County."
     In court, jurors couldn't help but notice the wheelchair, initially. But the wheelchair always seemed to fade into the background once Jim spoke, his commanding presence permeating the courtroom. Jim also was well known for arguing before the state Supreme Court in an appellate case that led to changes that strengthened corrupt organization laws.
     Hundreds of people, including former colleagues, judges, detectives, police officers, friends and family, celebrated Jim's life and remembered their good friend during a service last Saturday at St. John of the Cross Church in Roslyn.
     I had the privilege of interviewing Jim in May 2012 shortly before he retired and in typical Jim fashion he approached the interview with great humor and questioned the fuss people were making about his retiring. When the interview concluded, I was struck by his integrity, courage, determination, perspective on the world and knowledge about the legal institution he loved so much. Not once did Jim lament about his physical challenges.
     "My condition is what I am. But I don't let my condition limit what I am," Jim told me. "It's a part of me and I just go out and do what I feel like doing, the best that I can."
     Thank you for inspiring others, Jim. You will be missed.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Courtroom Civility and Decorum, Where Has It Gone?

                                        Montgomery County Courthouse, Norristown, Pa.
                                                                         /Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

     As I sat in a Montgomery County Courtroom last week covering the trial of three defendants charged with killing a West Pottsgrove man during a violent home invasion robbery, it struck me that civility and decorum in public places really has become an afterthought for some. A friend and supporter of one of the defendants repeatedly entered the courtroom throughout the week, his soiled, baggy jeans hanging below his waistline, displaying his underwear and rear-end to all the courtroom spectators. Each day, court crier Bruce Saville, a former county detective, had to remind the young man to pull them up.
    On the final day of the trial, as the verdict was about to be announced and tension was mounting, Judge Wendy Demchick-Alloy reminded some of the spectators that she wasn't amused by the brashness they displayed throughout the week,  at times being disrespectful in the court of law by talking loudly.
     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!
     Honestly, I'm not a prude, but my mother taught me that when you leave the house headed for a public place such as school or court you should dress appropriately. 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. Did the advent of so-called casual Fridays change the way people think about daily attire?
     I'm not a sociologist so I won't speculate on the reasons for the lack of decorum or incivility.
     But I have to give kudos to Demchick-Alloy for demanding decorum in her courtroom.
     Last September, a short, form-fitting, black, sleeveless dress was inappropriate attire for court and Demchick-Alloy let a Pottstown woman know it with a stern dressing-down. The woman's cocktail dress couldn't hide scratches on her arm, which she sustained in a fight.
     “You’re not dressed for court. Don’t come to court like you’re going to the beach or a nightclub,” Demchick-Alloy scolded the 20-year-old woman who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge stemming from a June 2013 disturbance in Pottstown. "Next time you come to court cover up."
     Earlier this month, Demchick-Alloy, who as a former prosecutor had a reputation for being "a pitbull in heels," scolded another defendant who apparently believed it was dress-down day in court.
     When the Philadelphia man arrived to court for his hearing wearing sagging jeans with holes that revealed a little too much backside, a stern Demchick-Alloy gave him a dressing-down of a different sort.
     “Your pants are completely ripped and rear end is hanging out the back. You come in here looking like a complete slob, which is disrespectful,” Demchick-Alloy scolded the man as he pleaded guilty to a summary disorderly conduct charge in connection with a 2011 disturbance in Cheltenham.
     The 26-year-old man told the judge he works in demolition and that he was wearing a belt in court. But the judge wasn’t impressed by the man’s excuses, reminding him his attire wasn’t proper for court, and added, “You could have made an effort.”
     The judge told the man she was reluctant to have him stand, for fear his pants would fall down, as she imposed his sentence.
     “Keep them pulled up sir, I don’t need to see your rear end,” Demchick-Alloy said with a strict tone in her voice.