Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Scenes From a Courtroom

Montgomery County Courthouse
Some of the most unusual moments in court come on pretrial hearing days when courtrooms are packed to the judicial rafters, sometimes standing-room-only, with defendants, prosecutors and defense lawyers. At those hearings, judges get an idea of where cases are headed and defendants can plead guilty or seek delays for any number of reasons.

As one Pottstown man pleaded guilty to a DUI charge recently, Judge Steven T. O’Neill, as he typically does with substance abusers, asked the man about the last time he drank alcohol or ingested drugs. The man told the judge he smoked some “weed” recently.

The judge, who presides over the county’s drug treatment court, was not amused. The defendant realized he just stuck his foot in his mouth.

At that exact moment an infant in the courtroom in the lap of a spectator let out an excruciatingly loud wail.

“Yeah, that’s exactly what he’s expressing right now,” said O’Neill, acknowledging the baby's cry while referring to the defendant, eliciting laughter from spectators and lawyers in the courtroom.
When the laughter died down, the judge got serious.
O'Neill's Gavel of Truth
“You want to smoke weed, go ahead. But they’re going to lock you up,” O’Neill told the man, explaining that while he’s on probation he’s prohibited from drinking or using drugs and that random testing will uncover it. “You’re not allowed to smoke weed. You have to find some support in your life. Get some support or get treatment.”

At one point a woman claiming to be the fiancĂ©e of a man facing criminal charges rose from her seat and demanded to speak to the judge. The woman proceeded to tell O’Neill that her paramour wanted to plead guilty to his charges. However, that was in direct contrast to what the man’s lawyer communicated to the judge.

“I want him to just come home,” the woman told O’Neill, who kindly thanked the woman for her comments but advised her that her boyfriend has a qualified lawyer who will speak on his behalf. The woman, in a huff, headed for the courtroom door, all the while complaining loudly.
“He has counsel,” the judge reiterated to the woman.
“That sucks,” the woman shouted back, referring to the lawyer.
“She didn’t just say that did she?” the judge asked courtroom staffers.
“Yes, I f------ did,” the woman said as she left the courtroom in a huff, stunning spectators with her unapologetic expletive.

Judge Steven T. O'Neill/Mercury file photo
Much later in the day, as one of the last cases on the pretrial list was addressed, defense lawyer Keith Harbison asked for a routine continuance on behalf of his client.
O’Neill told Harbison that he wouldn’t have had to wait around to handle that simple transaction.
“And miss the whole show?” Harbison said with quick wit.

That about summed it up for this day in court! Harbison wins Quote of the Day.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Case of the Missing 'M'

It was the case of the missing ‘M’ and oh what a stir it created in Montgomery County last week.

It was a slow Friday at the courthouse and several of us in the pressroom finally took the time to read, and really notice, the new maroon sign erected on the courthouse lawn at the corner of Swede and Airy streets. 

What was that I saw? Were my eyes bleary from writing too much copy for The Mercury and playing tricks on me?
There it was, right before the names of Josh Shapiro, Chair, Val Arkoosh, Vice Chair, and Bruce L. Castor Jr., the word ‘COMISSIONERS’ sans the additional required ‘M’ in the center of the title. OOPS!

It was like finding gold on a lazy, rather boring pre-summer afternoon at the courthouse. So, I, as @MontcoCourtNews, and two of my colleagues, went right to Twitter to have a little fun with hashtags.

“How do you spell ‘commissioners?’ Someone who erected new #MontcoPa Courthouse sign apparently didn’t know. #blunder”
“#MontcoPa #blunder New courthouse sign misspells ‘commissioners’ Wonder how much that sign cost? #Ooops”
“Hey @JoshShapiroPA @BruceCastor @VAArk How do you spell ‘commissioners?’ #MontcoPa #blunder as new sign goes up”

Yes, I was having some good-natured fun on Twitter and quite a few followers re-tweeted those tweets, joining the fun. One editor, @SMoore1117, tweeted “#CopyEditorsArePeopleToo” showing a little sympathy.
Frank Custer, county communications director, took to Twitter too with a sense of humor, tweeting “@MontcoCourtNews @Danclark08 you got us, Carl. Just seeing if you were awake. Took you awhile. Being fixed.”
To which I responded, “@Frank_Custer it did take me awhile to notice it; it took a slow Friday Court day for me to take the time to read it. Humorous moment”

I didn’t see a direct response from Shapiro or Arkoosh to my tweets, but Castor responded with what I think was humor by tweeting, “@MontcoCourtNews @JoshShapiroPA @VAArk We have a sign?”
Chester County DA Thomas P. Hogan even replied with a lighthearted tweet, “@MontcoCourtNews Never a problem for Chesco Commissioners #whatupmontco”

I ended the day with one final Tweet, “#Friday #Folly #MontcoPa has sign #blunder Was ‘commissioners’ misspelled or did budget cuts allow for only one ‘M’”

Don’t know who made the mistake or how it went missed by county proofreaders. Yes, one could probably say that mistake should not have occurred with so many county administrators and officials on duty to proofread. But mistakes do happen. Yes, readers have shot me emails from time to time about misspellings in my copy too.
I meant no harm showcasing the mistake. It was really all about having some social media fun on a Friday afternoon, to express a little humor from a place that is usually filled with sad, stressful situations on a daily basis.

In the week that has followed, the Associated Press picked up on the story of the missing “M” – so the blunder is likely known statewide now - and even one local TV station had a short report about it. Looks like it was a slow news week all around.

Well good news. Today, the missing “M” was discovered and the sign at Swede and Airy now properly reads “COMMISSIONERS.” Those in charge say the cost to repair several signs countywide that went without the “M” was about $4,000.

Thank you, comissioners for allowing me to have a little fun at your expense.

(Yes, I eliminated the “M” on purpose, couldn't resist.)

POSTSCRIPT: I am still scratching my head as to why most county signs say "Court House" instead of "Courthouse." But don't get me started. That's for another blog.


Court Reporters Rule

Court reporters, those women and men who sit in courtrooms on a daily basis and record the hearings in civil and criminal cases, are some of the hardest working people at the courthouse.

They sit for hours listening to endless testimony, making sure to capture every word correctly - which can be difficult when a witness is soft-spoken or speaking way too quickly - and then spend hours transcribing that testimony for judges and lawyers. The reporters must keep track of all prosecution and defense exhibits and make sure they are properly marked as evidence during trials.

And they are often summoned to court by judges at a moment’s notice, having to drop whatever else they’re working on.

It’s not uncommon to see the registered professional reporters working late into the evening in their offices next to the press room at the courthouse. There is a lot of reliance on court reporters and I have no doubt the judicial system would come to a screeching halt if they weren’t around.
Judges, often in subtle ways marked with humor, express their appreciation and recognize just how important those reporters are.
A court reporter stands ready to transcribe

During the trial of a Lansdale pawn shop robber last week that played out before Judge Thomas P. Rogers, jurors needed an explanation of the law during their deliberations. The judge summoned everyone to the courtroom and the jurors ended up being seated before trusted court reporter Shellie Camp made her way from her office to the courtroom to record the legal instructions.

“You might think it’s the judge who’s most important but it’s the court reporter,” Rogers joked, eliciting laughter from jurors. “She’s on her way.”

Indeed, not until Camp was in her seat could anything commence. COURT REPORTERS RULE!

On another day in Courtroom 5, defense lawyers, prosecutors and even Judge Steven T. O’Neill began noticing the temperature rising. With a courtroom overflowing with defendants awaiting pretrial conferences and their lawyers, it was noticeably warm.

Judge Steven T. O'Neill/Photo Carl Hessler Jr.
“What did you do to that air conditioning?” O’Neill jokingly inquired of his indispensable court reporter Ginny Womelsdorf, who he suggested has an in with maintenance officials when she complains the air conditioning makes the courtroom too cold.  “You have too much power.”

The judge was referring to the fact that Womelsdorf’s husband, Rich, is the skilled trades supervisor who fixes everything at the courthouse, the go-to man for all problems mechanical, who often is summoned to courtrooms to either turn down or turn up the temperature.
Court reporter Ginny Womelsdorf /Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

“The princess of the courtroom,” O’Neill lightheartedly said about the shivering Womelsdorf, during a break in the court's business.  “We’re going to get you gloves. We’ll get you a blankie.”

I was left wondering, was Womelsdorf dethroned? Just a week earlier, O’Neill referred to Womelsdorf as the “Queen of the courtroom,” giving judicial notice that she was aware of everything and kept track of everything that occurred in his courtroom.

Yes, I truly believe COURT REPORTERS RULE!

So here's a tip of the hat to Womelsdorf and Camp and all those reliable, hardworking court reporters in Montgomery County: Amy Boyer, Odalys Cummins, Magdalena Dineen, Mary Faino, Norma Gerrity, Jennifer Gillespie, Charles Gorgol, Mary Lou Hoelscher, Anita Huber, Donna Jones, Susan Laucella, Joan Mork, Michele Sherry, Linda Piersig, Charles Holmberg, Robin Hansell, Mary Morella, Megan McCartin, Tim Kurek, Ed McKenna, Lisa Neal, Bernadette Berardinelli, Anthony DiPrinzo, Mark Manjardi, Robin Smith, Debra Flamer, Deborah O'Dell, Paula Meszaros, Chanel Pyatt, Cynthia Pratt and George Frey.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Trial Tidbits: From Backpack to Farewell

     It was an interesting week, to say the least, during the trial of a Pottstown man who was convicted of sexually assaulting two women in the borough.
     The trial took an unexpected turn last Thursday when midway through an alleged victim’s testimony, a deputy sheriff entered the courtroom and suggested through hand signals to Judge Steven T. O’Neill that the judge should call for a break in the proceedings. Turns out deputies discovered a suspicious, lone backpack setting outside Courtroom 5. During these troubling times, unattended backpacks are never ignored, especially at a courthouse, are taken very seriously by security officials.
     So, Judge O’Neill interrupted the testimony and asked all those in the courtroom if anyone inadvertently left a backpack outside the courtroom door. As the witness, one of the victims, left the witness box and began to leave the courtroom to see if it was her backpack, one of the young legal interns in the gallery suddenly realized he didn’t have his backpack and went to retrieve it.
     I am sure that young man, one of many college students serving internships with either the district attorney or public defender this summer, got a lecture or two from sheriff’s officials and I’m sure was a bit embarrassed by his mistake. What a way to begin your summer internship.

     When the trial got back on track, and every day thereafter, Assistant District Attorney Brianna Ringwood and defense lawyer R. Emmett Madden ferociously presented their cases to the jurors each day and often challenged and interrupted each other with “Objection!” during their questioning of witnesses.
     While Ringwood and Madden were staunch competitors it was obvious it wasn’t personal and the two enjoyed some friendly banter during downtime at the trial and when the jury wasn’t present.
     “You two are going to miss each other over the weekend,” Judge O’Neill quipped out of earshot of jurors after he adjourned court on Friday, eliciting laughter from those in the courtroom who witnessed the intense, sometimes contentious legal wrangling all week.
     “We’re going to be texting each other,” Madden responded lightheartedly.
Judge Steven T. O'Neill

     Finally, the trial marked the end of the courthouse career of Judge O’Neill’s trusted court clerk Kevin Frankel, who left Monday after more than five years of clerking to begin his career as an attorney at law. Frankel, well known at the courthouse for his sense of humor and ever friendly demeanor, has landed a job with the firm Banks & Banks in Lafayette Hill, where he will practice real estate and business law.
     When he began working as a court clerk Frankel was a floater and worked with most of the judges in civil, family and criminal court. But since July 2013, Frankel worked exclusively as O’Neill’s court clerk, a full-time job while finishing his law degree at night.
     “It’s been a great experience watching cases unfold, watching justice be dispensed. I learned a ton,” Frankel told me. “The most exciting moment was getting verdicts.”
     All eyes were on Frankel last fall when he took the verdict from jurors who convicted Raghunandan Yandamuri, 28, of Upper Merion, of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death in connection with the Oct. 22, 2012, fatal stabbing of 61-year-old Satyavathi Venna and the suffocation of her 10-month-old granddaughter, Saanvi, in an Upper Merion apartment during a botched kidnapping attempt. It was the most high profile trial at the courthouse in recent memory and Frankel had a front row seat.
     “That was a big verdict,” Frankel recalled.
     Frankel said he’ll never forget all those he worked with over the years, adding “It’s a really good community and I’m definitely appreciative to be a part of this community, especially starting my legal career.”
     “Judge O’Neill is great to work for. He definitely cares about what he’s doing. The drug court he runs is very impressive and he’s making a change in Montgomery County,” Frankel said.
     O’Neill had some nice words for Frankel too.
     “He was a great asset to the court. He will be sorely missed and I wish him the best of luck in his new endeavor,” O’Neill said.
     Ginny Womelsdorf, O’Neill’s court reporter, said she will miss Frankel.
     “Kevin gave us comic relief, that’s what I’m going to miss the most,” Womelsdorf laughed. “Kevin was a part of our family, worked his way into our hearts and I’m going to miss him a lot. I’m proud of him.”
     Fellow court clerk Monica Pokorny, who previously worked in the Clerk of Courts Office, recalled Frankel was a member of the Clerk of Courts Coffee Club.
     “We got to chit chat every day. I will miss his positivity. He was always positive, funny and always in a good mood,” said Pokorny, who shadowed Frankel when she was learning the ropes of being a court clerk. “He was very efficient, no wasted time, he was right to the point.”
     Pokorny joked she also blamed Frankel for the minor earthquake that shook the Philly region and the courthouse several years ago.
     “I was sitting at my desk and my chair moved and I turned around and I expected to see Kevin,” said Pokorny, recalling Kevin loved to joke. “I thought that he was shaking my chair. Turns out it wasn’t Kevin, it was an earthquake. But I still blame him. It’s his fault.”

Best of luck, Kevin, in your legal career.