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Judge William J. Furber Jr., was at a restaurant and when it came time to pay her bill she realized the $40 she had withdrawn from the ATM, and thought she had put in her purse, was nowhere to be found.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.

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

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Twin Trouble for Photographers

Want to throw a bunch of photographers and videographers covering a high-profile criminal case into an angry tizzy – just have the defendant’s twin step into public view first.
That’s exactly what happened Monday as a swarm of media from all over the state was camped out on the third floor of the courthouse waiting for Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane to arrive for her preliminary hearing on charges she allegedly leaked grand jury information and lied about it under oath.
Members of the media waited behind a roped off area, poised to attack with their cameras at the first Kane sighting.

But as the elevator doors opened it was Kane’s twin, Ellen Granahan Goffer, who stepped off first, wearing a black jacket, her hair swept up in a bun, sunglasses resting on her head. Immediately, camera men and women began clicking and recording as Goffer walked the narrow runway, set up by security, between the elevators and the courtroom entrance. (All that was missing, by the way, was a red carpet).

Media members didn’t realize they were following Kane’s twin until it was way too late.
Members of Kane’s security detail were behind Goffer, and Kane, wearing a bright reddish orange dress, followed them. But all cameras were still on Goffer, a chief deputy state attorney general in Kane’s office, and Kane was able to slip into the courtroom virtually unnoticed by camera-people. There was only about 15 to 20 feet between the elevator and the courtroom door.

My colleague at the Times Herald, Dan Clark caught the dramatic moment on his cell phone video camera. Take a look:Video

Photographers scrambled when they realized their mistake but to no avail, they still came up empty handed in the photo department.

Oops. For the experienced, professional photographers used to being in the trenches, it definitely stung. Imagine those anxious calls to television station and newspaper editors telling them you only captured the twin.

Media members groused throughout the day that they were only able to snap Kane’s twin and that they had to remain until the preliminary hearing ended to get the money shot of Kane as she left the hearing. To add to their annoyance, that hearing went on for more than four hours. Here's video of Kane leaving: Video2

During the wait, I heard a lot of banter about the twin escapade, everyone debating whether it was a deliberate tactic by Kane’s defense team.
“Yeah, I got enough pictures of her sister,” one photographer said loudly to a colleague, eliciting laughter from everyone camped out in the hallway.
Kane and sister The Mercury front page

I don’t know if it was a deliberate ploy. But I have to say even though the sisters look alike, they were dressed differently and wore their hair differently (Kane wore her long locks down over her shoulders, like she traditionally does) and Kane, wearing that bright, reddish orange dress certainly did stand out in the crowd. Kane certainly didn't appear to be trying to fade into the background.

How could they have missed her?

Have to admit even though it stung my counterparts in the news business that sister act was one dramatic, entertaining moment that will be remembered for a long time.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Oyeh, Oyeh, Oyeh, Montco Judicial Assignments Finalized

As the court criers say each day, “Oyeh, Oyeh, Oyeh,
All manner of persons having business to come before the honorable judges of the Court of Common Pleas, in and for the County of Montgomery here holden this day, let them come forth and appear and they shall be heard. God save the Commonwealth and the honorable court.”

Everyone at the courthouse was buzzing this week about the upcoming business of the court as the new judicial assignments for the period Jan. 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017 apparently were finalized.
This is the roster, according to what I am hearing:

CRIMINAL COURT (There will be eight assigned judges): President Judge William J. Furber Jr., who will also preside over Veteran’s Treatment Court; Judge William R. Carpenter; Judge Steven T. O’Neill, who will act as administrative judge and also preside over Drug Treatment Court; Judge Thomas P. Rogers; Judge Garrett D. Page; Judge Gary S. Silow, who will also preside over Behavioral Health Court; Judge Gail A. Weilheimer; and a new judge to be elected in November.

CIVIL COURT (There will be five assigned judges): Judge Thomas M. DelRicci, who will be administrative judge; Judge Thomas C. Branca; Judge Carolyn T. Carluccio; Judge Richard P. Haaz; and Judge Steven C. Tolliver.

FAMILY COURT (There will be six assigned judges): Judge Rhonda Lee Daniele; Judge R. Stephen Barrett; Judge Kelly C. Wall, who will be administrative judge; Judge Patricia E. Coonahan; and two of the new judges to be elected in November.

JUVENILE COURT: Judge Wendy Demchick-Alloy, who will also be administrative judge.

ORPHANS’ COURT (There will be two assigned judges): Judge Lois E. Murphy, who will be administrative judge; and Judge Cheryl L. Austin.

A list of the judicial assignments that I saw did not include who will be handling the county’s DUI Court during that period. Stay tuned, I will let you know as soon as I hear the details.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Sentencing Day Doesn't Always Mean 'Go Directly to Jail'

On Aug. 12, when convicted Abington burglar Phillip Scott Leopold, 35, showed up in Montgomery County Court to be sentenced in connection with a May 2014 break-in at the home of a neighbor, Judge Wendy-Demchick Alloy refused his request to report to jail at a later date.

Leopold, who pleaded guilty to charges in May and was free on bail while awaiting sentencing, claimed he needed time to properly say good-bye to relatives.

Huh? Did I hear that right?

Leopold’s parents were in the courtroom and they could have told other relatives about Leopold’s plight.

In the end, I believe the judge got it right.

Montco Judge Wendy Demchick-Alloy/Mercury file Photo

“You’ve had enough time to say good-bye to your family members. You should have attempted that before you got here,” Demchick-Alloy told Leopold, ordering him to immediately begin serving the six to 23 month sentence.

But sentencing day in Montgomery County Court doesn’t always mean a defendant who is sentenced to jail is going directly to jail that day. Time and time again I see judges grant defense requests to allow those sentenced to jail to report days, sometimes weeks later.

It’s like acquiring a “GET OUT OF JAIL FREE CARD” for a bit longer. But this isn’t a game of Monopoly.

Defense lawyers will often claim a defendant needs extra time to make “arrangements” at home for things such as child care or to get “their affairs in order” regarding finances, etc., and seek delayed reporting dates.

Doesn’t that amount to justice by appointment?

The way I see it, defendants have been free on bail for months since their trial convictions or guilty pleas and that time should have been used to make those “arrangements.” They know that jail is a possibility when they show up to be sentenced so shouldn’t they already be prepared to begin paying their debts to society?
And why wouldn’t a defendant just want to get the time behind bars over with? Why would they want to let impending jail time hang over their heads for a few more days or weeks?

Often, victims, who have been waiting months or years for justice, come to court to witness judgment day and only see it delayed a bit longer when a defendant doesn’t have to report to jail immediately.

Personally, I think defendants awaiting sentencing need to start bringing their toothbrushes with them when they come to court so they're prepared for the immediate trip to jail if a judge determines time behind bars is warranted.

Don’t get me wrong, delayed reporting dates might be appropriate if a judge is granting an offender immediate work release as part of a sentence. Turns out it can take a few days for jail officials to work out those schedules with an offender’s employer. So the offender doesn’t lose their job, a delayed report date might be necessary. I understand that.

Likewise, I understood when Judge William R. Carpenter gave a pregnant Main Line mother of two several  days to report to jail after she admitted that her reckless conduct while driving caused the death of a Conshohocken man during a two-vehicle crash in Lower Merion. Carpenter allowed Meredith Williams-Earle, 32, who is expecting her third child in December, a few days to report to jail, after she pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, so she could attend a previously scheduled appointment with her obstetrician.

But throughout my years of reporting on the courts I have seen most criminal court judges grant delays in reporting dates in some cases that don’t involve work release sentences. Here are some recent examples:

Earlier this month, Judge Garrett D. Page sentenced Jessica Streeper, 34, a former eighth-grade teacher at a Norristown school, to nine to 23 months in jail for having sex with a 14-year-old male student. Defense lawyer Marc Neff asked the judge to give Streeper about a month to report to jail so she could be home with her children until school begins.
Assistant District Attorney Sophia Polites adamantly opposed the request arguing, “Today was sentencing day” and Streeper should go directly to jail.
Montco Judge Garrett D. Page/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

But Judge Page decided to give Streeper, of Buckingham Township, Bucks County, one week, to report to jail and she walked out of court free to be with her husband and children for another week.

On Aug. 11, Judge Thomas P. Rogers sentenced Dylan A. Bruner, 29, of Horsham, to 11 ½ to 23 months in jail in connection with a 10:13 p.m. July 10, 2014, two-vehicle crash in the 800 block of Welsh Road in Horsham that killed Maureen Chapman, 69, of New Britain Township. Rogers gave Bruner until Aug. 24 to surrender to jailers.
Dylan Bruner/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

The list goes on. Call it a pet peeve of mine, but personally, I think that’s a list that should not keep getting longer. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Judge Keeps a Promise

Montgomery County Judge Garrett D. Page traveled to Tulpehocken Township, Berks County, on July 31 to attend the graduation ceremony at the Teen Challenge Training Center, a faith-based, residential substance abuse rehabilitation program.
Montgomery County Judge Garrett D. Page/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
Specifically, Page went to see Michael Thomas, 50, a former Bridgeport man, graduate from the program to which he had paroled him on April 14, 2014.

“It was a 14-month intensive program. It’s no playground. It’s a faith-based solution for the adult drug epidemic,” Page explained.

When Page sentenced Thomas for a probation violation and paroled him directly to the Teen Challenge program in April 2014, he said, “I may be seeing you at Teen Challenge. Maybe I’ll pay a visit. I would recommend that the district attorney’s office get familiar with this program. I may even go there and visit them.”

Kudos to Page for keeping his promise.

Page believed Thomas’ graduation would be the perfect time to visit the training center, which despite its name does not just offer programs for teens. Page visited the program and attended the graduation on his own time.

Thomas, Page said, received an award for being “the most improved graduate” and was presented with a large wooden cross as he left the graduation podium.

“It was moving,” Page said about the ceremony, adding Thomas embraced him when he caught up with him after the graduation. “It was very emotional. This experience was nothing but positive energy.”
Cross awarded to Michael Thomas/Photo courtesy Judge Garrett Page

The judge said he was pleased to have made a difference in the life of someone who once stood before him to be punished for his crimes.

“Judges can make a difference,” Page said. “This was important for me as well as him, to educate me (about the program).”

Page grew up in the east Germantown section of Philadelphia in the 1970s, an area then frequented by gangs and an area he often describes as “the hood” when he addresses defendants who come before him in court.

“A number of my friends were shot, killed. Back in the 70s the gangs were big,” Page told me in April as he prepared to speak at the Peacemakers Pottstown Youth Violence Prevention Summit, adding his mother, a home and school coordinator, and his father, a postal worker and community activist for safe streets, “kept us away from that” and ingrained in him a spirit of nonviolence. “I want (defendants) to know that I’ve been in the middle of it. I’m a survivor. Maybe that can give them some hope.”

In October 2013, Thomas was sentenced to 11 ½ to 23 months in the county jail, to be followed by three years’ probation, after he pleaded guilty to a criminal trespass charge stemming from an incident in Norristown, according to court records. Thomas was back in court on April 14, 2014, in front of Page for violating his sentence, according to court records.

At the April 14 violation hearing, Thomas’ lawyer told Page that Thomas used pot since he was 11 or 12 and admitted to having a cocaine problem. An evaluation, according to testimony, showed Thomas had a dysfunctional childhood, escaped through drugs and alcohol and committed crimes related to his drug abuse.

“Your honor, I think we all too often see in these courtrooms the tragic tendency that underlies a lot of criminal behavior, and that is drug addiction and the power of drug addiction,” defense lawyer William Weiss said at that time. “I think that Mr. Thomas recognizes that about himself and that he has had that drip over his life, unfortunately, for far too long.”

Weiss told Page at that time that Thomas, who admitted to violating his previous sentence, didn’t want to be paroled directly to the streets but rather wanted to be paroled into a treatment program where he could get help. Page gave Thomas credit for the year he had been in jail awaiting sentencing for the violation and ordered that he couldn’t be released until a bed was ready for him at Teen Challenge.

“I witnessed your demeanor on the stand. I do believe that you are possibly on the right track,” Page told Thomas.
Page also ordered Thomas to complete two years’ probation after he’s paroled from the 14-month Teen Challenge program.
“So do what you have to do to get through this thicket called life and get into this program and you prove to me, because I’m going to have probation on you after that,” Page told Thomas at the time. “If I hear you mess up, I’m going to mess you up.”

Montgomery County Judge Garrett D. Page/Photo by Hessler
Thomas told Page he has two grandkids.

“You’re young enough to be able to get involved with your grandkids and your children. Get involved with your own life, but after 14 months is over, I’m going to trust that you’ll make it through, this is lifetime. This is not 14 months,” Page told Thomas, telling him outpatient rehab must follow his Teen Challenge graduation. “And you need a safety net all around you.”

Page said he was impressed with the Teen Challenge program.

“A lot of people don’t know about it. I’m going to introduce it to our judges. I’m going to bring it up at a judicial meeting,” Page said. “Sometimes it’s a good thing to attend a graduation so you get the full flavor of where are we sending these defendants.” 

Friday, July 31, 2015


Gloria Woods, assistant supervisor for Court Clerks in Montgomery County, was beaming with pride this week after learning her daughter gave birth to a little girl, Hannah Leigh. 

It’s the first granddaughter for Woods, who also has two grandsons.

“She’s like my little princess. I waited for her for a long time,” said Woods, who previously worked as Judge Gary S. Silow’s court clerk.
Gloria Woods/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Woods was seen this week proudly sharing photographs of little Hannah to her co-workers, who gushed over the cute baby photos. I’ll say one thing, little Hannah couldn’t want for a nicer “Nana.”

Hannah Leigh was born at 2:21 p.m. July 29 to the proud parents of Ashley and Sean Konzman and weighed 7 lbs 2 oz. and was 19 ½ inches long, according to Woods.
Hannah Leigh Konzman/Photo courtesy of Gloria Woods

So if you see Woods around the courthouse congratulate her on being a proud new grandmother.


Congratulations also go out to Nancy McFarland, 78, of Lower Providence, who retired recently from the county Clerk of Courts Office where she had been employed since 2000.

“It’s been very interesting. I didn’t have any legal experience or working in a lawyer’s office. This was my first time working anywhere in the courthouse,” McFarland said on her last day on the job. “The people I worked with were great. There are a lot of young people and I enjoyed being in their company. I enjoyed working here.”
“The courthouse is not any easy place to work because there’s a lot of stress in what you do and in what you’re handling and a lot to learn all the time. It’s interesting work,” McFarland added. “I’m going to miss the people I worked with.”

McFarland was often the first voice members of the public heard if they called the clerk’s office because most recently she manned the phone lines and took all incoming calls.

“A lot of times people that called were already stressed out or angry about something so some of my calls you had to really work with them,” McFarland recalled.
McFarland previously served as an elected supervisor in Lower Providence for 20 years. From 1965 to 2000, McFarland worked in the small machine shop that she and her late husband owned.

Linda Sulock, McFarland’s supervisor, said McFarland was “always a fun person to work with.”
“She was very personable and was very accommodating to the clients no matter how disgruntled they might have been on the phone. And Nancy always had a way of making something a little less stressful by adding one of her own little comments that would break the ice and people wouldn’t be quite as upset as they were when they first called,” Sulock said.

McFarland was known for telling co-workers many stories about traveling and living in the Norristown area.
About her future plans, McFarland laughed, “Well next week I’m going to sleep until I want to get up or until the dog gives me a kiss.”
Seriously, McFarland, who has 17 grandchildren, added, “I want to do things I didn’t have time to do. When you work five days a week it doesn’t leave much time to do big projects so I would like to do some big projects. And I’m a flea market junkie. I did flea markets for 10 years and enjoyed them and I would like to see if I could get back to doing a little bit of that too.”

As we were speaking in a courthouse hallway, numerous passersby hugged her and shouted, “Nancy, I’m going to miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too,” Nancy replied, her voice quivering a bit with emotion.

Nancy, I wish you much happiness and enjoyment in your retirement.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Wheels of Justice Spin for Charity

Congratulations go out to Montgomery County’s law enforcement community, riding with the district attorney’s “Wheels of Justice” team, who completed last Sunday’s annual 65-mile Irish Pub Tour De Shore charity ride, which honors police officers killed in the line of duty and benefits the children they left behind.

The team collectively raised more than $70,000 and won the John Timoney Award for the largest team and most fundraising.

District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman and First Assistant District Attorney Kevin Steele even geared up and joined the team’s 250 members, composed of law enforcement officials from within the ranks of Ferman's office as well as local police departments and sheriff’s deputies, for the 28th annual event.

“I rode. This year was grueling. It was the hottest day in memory for me riding Tour De Shore. The heat was crushing,” Ferman told me. “For most of the ride, I was not just drinking water but pouring water over my head as I rode. I doused myself with water and within a few moments it would be dry. It was just sweltering hot.”
GEARED UP Montco First Asst. DA Kevin Steele & DA Risa Vetri Ferman/Photo courtesy of Risa Ferman

Ferman completed the ride in just over five hours.
“Not too shabby in that heat for an old broad like me,” joked Ferman, who turned 50 this year.

The road trip, Ferman said, was also the most crowded she had ever seen. This year, more than 2,300 cyclists participated in the event.
“Sometimes the conditions on the roadway were not ideal. People were falling and getting injured. During the course of the ride we heard ambulances. Notwithstanding all of that, it was the best time that I ever had,” Ferman said.
READY TO GO! Montco DA Risa Vetri Ferman/Photo courtesy of Risa Ferman

“There is such a sense of camaraderie and fellowship at this event. We all ride on different teams and certainly there’s a great deal of competition among the teams in the buildup to the ride. But on the day of, we are truly one team united in support of our first responders who put their lives on the line for us every day,” Ferman added.

The bike ride from Philadelphia to Atlantic City benefits the Irish Pub Children's Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising funds for Delaware Valley-based, children-oriented charitable endeavors. With record turnout the foundation surpassed its $800,000 fundraising goal for 2015. The Irish Pub Children’s Foundation has raised more than $5 million since its inception, according to officials.
AFTER THE RIDE A FAN CAME IN HANDY/Photo Courtesy of Risa Ferman

This marked the seventh year that the Wheels of Justice team participated in the event. To date, the team has helped raise more than $335,000 for the charity over the course of the seven years.

Wheels of Justice Team/Photo Courtesy of Risa Vetri Ferman
“I’m very proud to be from Montgomery County when we go down to Atlantic City for this ride. Montgomery County’s presence is very well known and visible,” Ferman said.

The Wheels of Justice team, along with its sister team, Team G-Riders, represent all facets of the Montgomery County criminal justice system, including the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, the Sheriff’s Department, county Public Safety Department, local police departments and local defense lawyers, judges and friends and families of law enforcement.

“We ride in honor of many heroes, but the ride has taken on a very special meaning since Montgomery County lost Plymouth Township Police Officer Brad Fox in 2012,” Ferman said. “We ride in Brad’s memory in honor of our fallen hero and we ride to honor the service and sacrifice of all our first responders who put their lives on the line every single day so that the rest of us can be safe.”
Photo Courtesy of Risa Vetri Ferman

The event was created in 1987 when Cathy Burke and Mark O’Connor, owners of the Irish Pub, were looking for ways to give back to the community and bridge the gap between the Irish pubs in Philadelphia and Atlantic City.

“Twenty-eight years ago, this ride started out with 20 riders and has now exceeded our wildest expectations,” said O’Connor, president of the Irish Pub Children’s Foundation. “What was once a casual ride of 20 has now become a can’t-miss Delaware Valley event every summer.”

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Facebook Posts Derail Case; Kudos to Montco Prosecutor for Talking About It

I have often heard prosecutors say to juries that they don’t choose their witnesses, urging jurors not to hold it against them for parading drug users and dealers, prostitutes or jailhouse snitches into court as witnesses in cases at trial. Often, intrepid defense lawyers will attack the credibility and reliability of prosecution witnesses who have some baggage in their backgrounds, trying to convince jurors not to trust the testimony.
This week, spectators observing the trial of a Lower Pottsgrove teenager accused of luring a West Pottsgrove teen to a car to be robbed learned how quickly a prosecutor’s case can go south when the star witness’ Facebook posts came back to haunt him and essentially derailed the prosecutor’s case.

The 19-year-old alleged victim initially testified he never smoked marijuana or sold it.
But not 10 minutes later, when defense lawyer Douglas Breidenbach Jr. cross-examined the young man, he admitted to making posts to his Facebook account that appeared to express his fascination with pot.

One by one, photograph by photograph, Breidenbach confronted the alleged robbery victim with copies of his Facebook shenanigans, which included photos of a marijuana cigarette, photos of him bearing a Nazi symbol etched on his hand and smoking with captions such as “I’m so high” and “Let’s get baked,” and even references claiming he was known as “Kush Man.”
“Kush” is street slang for high grade marijuana. The young man tried to convince the courtroom, “Kush is just a word, it has a lot of meanings.”

The alleged victim also posted on his Facebook page a disrespectful cartoon caricature depicting President Obama, presumably smoking weed, according to testimony. Breidenbach asked the young man, “Is it because you’re a fan of President Obama or a fan of marijuana?”
The 19-year-old replied, “I see nothing wrong with that.”

Well, turns out there was something wrong with his testimony and some jurors appeared less than interested in anything else the young man had to say. Revelations concerning his Facebook posts essentially destroyed his credibility.

Assistant District Attorney Benjamin McKenna, after the alleged victim completed his testimony, moved to dismiss the charges against the 17-year-old who was accused of helping to set up the alleged robbery.
“It was a case that hinged overwhelmingly on the credibility of the victim and when you get caught the way he got caught…and if he looks like a liar then the case fails. It’s our office’s belief that you don’t go forward on charges you can’t prove and I couldn’t prove the charges,” McKenna said candidly to a reporter afterward.

“Mr. McKenna, who I know to be very competent, was stuck with one of the world’s worst witnesses,” Breidenbach summed it up.
Montgomery County Judge Garrett Page/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

In court, Judge Garrett D. Page said, “Justice works in different ways. I give credit to the commonwealth to the extent they weighed their efforts.”

Kudos to McKenna for later discussing with the press his decision, which, I am sure, was difficult to swallow, but which seemed inevitable to all spectators after what the witness testified to in court. McKenna was professional and forthright, and didn't shun this reporter, not like some lawyers I’ve seen dash from court after a legal blow and disappear faster than free coffee at the courthouse cafeteria.

Later, I talked to seasoned prosecutor District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman about the challenge a prosecutor faces when a case unravels.
“I am immensely proud of the way he handled himself in the course of this case,” Ferman said about McKenna. “He was faced with a challenging situation. He was faced very clearly with the fact that his main witness had lied and he knew instinctively that we don’t rely upon liars and knew that the right thing to do in that case was to dismiss the charges and that’s what he did.”
Montco DA Risa Vetri Ferman/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

“Justice comes in many forms. Certainly there are times when justice is seeking a conviction and obtaining a conviction. But we can only do justice when we are willing to stand up and have the courage to do what is right and withdraw charges when it’s appropriate. And in that particular case, justice demanded that we withdraw the charges and that’s what this young assistant DA did. I could not be more proud of him,” Ferman added.

Breidenbach, well-known as a tenacious Pottstown area criminal defense lawyer, and his client were pleased with the outcome. Breidenbach said, “We think it’s the right result because we think it was a manufactured story in the first place.”

Breidenbach argued during his opening statement to jurors that the alleged victim gave inconsistent statements and that his testimony was not reliable or credible and that jurors would be left doubting that the robbery even occurred. Uncovering the supposed victim's Facebook posts, Breidenbach had done his homework and brought about one of those rare "ah ha" courtroom moments.
“If the jury doesn’t believe him (the alleged victim) there’s no case,” Breidenbach said.
After the alleged victim’s testimony, I’ll bet some jurors felt that way.

The alleged victim left the courthouse abruptly after wrapping up his testimony.

I’ll never understand one’s fascination for posting offensive tidbits or revealing everything about themselves on Facebook and other social media sites.

NOTE TO FACEBOOK USERS – Be careful what you post. You never know when it will come back to bite you.