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.