Thursday, May 26, 2016

To Some, He's Known As "The Man"

Last week, in recognition of National Drug Court Month, the Montgomery County commissioners issued a proclamation lauding the county’s drug treatment program overseen by Judge Steven T. O’Neill for the last 10 years.
Judge Steven T. O'Neill/Submitted photo

Commissioners Josh Shapiro, Val Arkoosh and Joe Gale called O’Neill “a trailblazer” and “visionary” for his work and dedication to a program that helps offenders fight their addictions, encourages them to change their lifestyles and offers them the opportunity to earn a dismissal of the criminal charges against them or to have their court supervision terminated early.

Shapiro recalled attending the recent 82nd drug court graduation and was awed by the way the graduates looked up to O’Neill with respect and admiration.

“As you poked your head out before the program began, one of, I presume, the graduates sitting behind me goes, ‘There’s the judge, he’s The Man,’” Shapiro smiled. “How often does that occur when a defendant’s in the courtroom and says, ‘He’s The Man?’ That doesn’t happen all the time and I think that speaks to the approach that you individually take but also the approach that collectively we take here in Montgomery County.”

Commissioner Josh Shapiro/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Shapiro said the county’s drug treatment court has become the model for other counties designing problem-solving courts all across the state.

O’Neill took about 20 minutes to tout the program during the commissioners’ meeting. I sometimes grouse that O’Neill speaks way too long at times when speaking publicly but in this instance it was warranted. He has every right to be proud of the program. It has saved lives, I have no doubt.

Judge O'Neill addresses commissioners/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

I’ve interviewed people who have been helped by O’Neill’s drug court program and who credit O’Neill and his assisting probation officers and counselors for saving their lives.

“I love Judge O’Neill. He genuinely cares. He is trying to help you. He is trying to save your life. If it wasn’t for drug court I don’t know where I would be, probably nowhere good,” one young woman told me during a 2013 interview 

Judge O'Neill receives proclamation/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
There’s probably someone else who thinks of O’Neill as “The Man.”

You’ll recall something I posted here last October, when O’Neill didn’t think twice before springing into action after witnessing a car crash at a gas station on Montgomery Avenue in Lower Merion.

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.

By that time, emergency crews arrived and were able to get the woman out of the vehicle, sources said.

Perhaps, “The Man” moniker IS well-deserved.

Congratulations, your honor, for your 10-years of service making drug court a success.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

It May Not be 'Law and Order,' But Aspiring Public Servants Enjoy First-hand Look at Legal Profession

It wasn’t like anything they ever saw depicted in television legal dramas.

But by taking part in a mock trial project some Montgomery County students enrolled in local homeschooling programs had the opportunity recently to obtain a comprehensive view of the criminal justice system.

More than a dozen eighth- and ninth-grade students from the Souderton and Willow Grove areas visited courtrooms, met judges, prosecutors, court administrators, a member of the media and other courthouse workers as they explored vocations in the legal arena.

“I think it was exciting and encouraging for them to see the jury box, to talk to the judge, to talk to a prosecutor and a court administrator just to see what is involved to make this process seem as seamless as it is at times,” said Shannan Mazlo, a homeschooling parent who helped organize two days of visits to the courthouse.

“I think the importance of it was it’s not ‘Law and Order,’” added fellow homeschooling parent Melissa Davis. “In our judicial system, it’s not just a lawyer and a judge but there are other opportunities, there are clerks, there are court reporters. There are definitely different dimensions. I think that gives them a unique perspective.”

Mazlo and Davis are supported as homeschoolers by Classical Conversations, a nationwide community of homeschoolers who follow a classical model of education through a Christian worldview.

County Court Administrator Michael Kehs and Assistant District Attorney Cara McMenamin gave the visiting students and their parents a tour of courtrooms and answered the students’ probing questions about what it’s like to work at a courthouse and as a prosecutor. Judge William R. Carpenter graciously took time out of his day to address the students who sat in the jury box. Some also took a seat in the witness box.
Michael Kehs and Cara McMenamin/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Sitting in the witness box, the students smiled from ear to ear, and said the experience was awesome and also somewhat intimidating.

I also was invited to address the students briefly, during which I explained the exciting job of being a court news reporter.

“This is the age where they can be really excited about their futures and this can be a pivotal moment for them,” Mazlo reminded me. “Maybe this will ignite a spark in one of the kids, that maybe this will be a career path that they didn’t consider and will now want to pursue.”

The students were polite, energized and appeared eager to learn about the court system and it was inspiring to see how interested the youngsters were in the world around them. I have no doubt some of them caught the bug to be a lawyer, a judge, and yes, even a journalist.

“Thank you for coming along with us on the tour. I really enjoyed your explanations,” one student wrote to me in a note of thanks.

“Thank you for your time and expertise! Thank you for sharing your perspective with us,” other students wrote.

Students on Mock Trial Teams/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
After an initial visit and tour, the students returned to the courthouse for a mock trial competition last month. The students observed how a case develops from crime to conviction over the course of 15 weeks preparing for the competition.

“They had to work through a substantial amount of information and determine what was important to their case. They knew it so well, they were able to present it to the judge and jury,” Mazlo said.

The jury was comprised of a panel of volunteers who indicated they were impressed by the students’ professionalism in the courtroom.

The mock case involved that of a South Carolina man who was charged with murder and possession of a dangerous animal after his dog fatally mauled a teenager who went onto his property.

“There were a lot of red herrings to really cause the kids to dig deep and figure out their strategy,” Mazlo said. “It really brought out their critical thinking skills. A lot of the kids played dual roles as lawyers and witnesses and so they had to think on their feet.”

Each team presented the case twice, once as the prosecution and then as the defense, devising a strategy to defend the accused.
“I’m so proud that nerves didn’t take over. They all did phenomenal. No one really tripped up or made any obvious mistakes,” Mazlo said.

Judge Carpenter presided over the competition and provided the future legal eagles with advice on the handling of evidence, trial strategy and delivery. The students said it was an honor to meet the judge.
Mock Trial Team/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

“We are incredibly thankful for the generosity of the judge and his willingness to give back to the community and sit in on the mock trial. We’re so thankful he took the time to nurture the children and help educate them about our court system,” Mazlo said.

It didn’t matter who prevailed during the trial, it was not about winning but about showcasing the skills they learned. I believe all the students were winners because they gained so much knowledge by participating in the exercise.

For a few days, the students, many with dreams of public service in their futures, were involved in something special, something important, and something they will remember for a very long time.

Kudos to Judge Carpenter, Kehs and McMenamin for being role models and taking time out of their hectic schedules to help mentor young people. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

Young Judicial Hopeful Sean Herron Gets Glimpse of Court Career

Order in the courtroom, there was new face on the Montgomery County bench this week!

At least for a few cherished, pretend moments.

Eleven-year-old Sean Herron, a sixth grade student at Mater Dei Catholic School in Lansdale, flashed a wide smile as he donned the black robe of Judge Gail A. Weilheimer this week and situated his small frame in the judge’s large, leather chair behind the bench.

“How’s it feel up there?” Weilheimer asked the youngster who dreams of becoming a judge one day.

“Cool,” he replied happily as he grasped the judge’s wooden gavel.

Sean and his father, Joseph, were the guests of Weilheimer on one recent morning as Sean sought to learn everything he could about the legal profession.

“I visited the courtrooms upstairs and I saw how the judges work and all their robes and how you get prepared for the case,” Sean said eagerly. “I learned a lot and it was really fun to see what they do.”
Sean Herron takes the bench/ Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

I asked Sean what it was like to wear a judicial robe and he didn’t hold back his delight.

“I felt like a real judge,” he said. “The gavel was really fun.”

Sean gained the chance to tour the courthouse and meet a judge by winning an essay contest in his sixth grade class at Mater Dei. The Nocchi Law Firm in the Lansdale area sponsors the contest, during which the winner receives tuition reimbursement and a trip to the courthouse to meet a judge. Sean’s day also included lunch at the Montgomery Bar Association in Norristown.

“Since I wrote that essay I really got an interest in being a judge. Now I know how everything works,” said Sean, who turns 12 next week.

This is the second year that the Nocchi Law Firm has sponsored the contest.
Lawyer Marguerite Nocchi, who has practiced family law for 26 years, said the contest winners “really have a great time” during the courthouse visit.

“My children went to that school when it was called Saint Stanislaus and I like to give back to the community and this is just a little way that I do,” said Nocchi, explaining she enjoys sponsoring the contest winner.

Lawyer Marguerite Nocchi with Sean Herron/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
Nocchi enjoyed seeing Sean’s eyes light up when he entered the courtroom.

“It was spectacular. He really has a gift. He was very poised speaking with the judge. He was prepared with questions for her and he answered her questions. He’s a natural,” Nocchi gushed.

“I’m going to vote for him, I can’t wait,” Nocchi added, referring to Sean’s desire to run for judge in the future.

Sean’s father couldn’t be prouder.

“Sean’s career choice that he wants to pursue is being a judge. That’s what brought us here. He’s very excited. You can tell from the smile on his face, he’s very excited to be here today,” said Joseph Herron.

Weilheimer enjoys giving young people the opportunity to explore the legal profession from her courtroom. She recalled that when she was 18 and considering a career in law, then Bucks County District Attorney Alan M. Rubenstein allowed her to shadow some lawyers. Rubenstein went on to be a judge in Bucks.
Montgomery County Judge Gail A. Weilheimer/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

“From that, it started me on my path of being interested in law, going to law school and eventually getting to this place,” Weilheimer recalled. “So if I can help a younger person who thinks they’re interested in law figure out if this is something they want to pursue, I had that opportunity given to me and I’d like to do that for someone else.” 

Kudos to Nocchi and Weilheimer for taking the time to mentor students.

Good luck, Sean, on your future endeavors. Maybe I’ll be reporting from your courtroom one day.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Montco Legal Community Celebrates Law Day

Montgomery County Courthouse
With the theme “Miranda, More Than Words,” Montgomery County’s legal community gathered last Friday to celebrate Law Day during a cheerful ceremony.

“Law Day is a special day of celebration by the people of the United States wherein we celebrate our commitment to the rule of law and to upholding the fundamental principles enshrined in our founding documents. It aids us in rededicating ourselves with the ideals of equality and justice and helps us to continue to cultivate respect for the law, which is so vital to our democratic way of life,” President Judge William J. Furber Jr. said during his opening remarks to the crowd of more than 100 that gathered in the county’s ceremonial courtroom for the annual celebration.

Speaking about the 1966 case Miranda vs Arizona, Furber said “it reshaped our entire jurisprudence.”

“Miranda has been the most frequently cited case in the history of the Republic. It was indeed, more than words, because the court brought the Bill of Rights into a contemporary understanding. Miranda expressed the vitality of the Constitution but also gave litigants a remedy under the Constitution if their rights were violated, namely suppression of the statements that were allegedly made,” Furber added.

“The Miranda warnings become so ingrained in our popular culture that many know all of its words starting with, ‘You have the right to remain silent,’” Furber continued. “Yet, as the Law Day theme implies, there is much more to Miranda than the words of the warning. It is a living symbol of the importance of procedural fairness and equal justice under the law.”

Judge Todd Eisenberg, who joined the county bench in January, presented the Law Day address, focusing on the Miranda theme.

The annual ceremony included the admission and introduction of the Montgomery Bar Association’s newest members, who were greeted with thunderous applause from the audience.

“For those who will be inducted you will become members of the most efficient, courteous and professional Bar Association within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Take advantage of your membership and all that it has to offer,” said Furber.

“It’s a wonderful place to meet other lawyers and discuss issues of mutual interest while at the same time making what often become lifelong friends. Never will you find a group of lawyers so willing to help those who are embarking upon their new careers. Their experience and advice is an invaluable tool which will benefit you in ways you can never imagine,” Furber said to the new inductees, referring to the association they joined. “This is a relationship that has been cultivated over the years and allows us to work hand-in-hand to provide the framework necessary to promote the practice of law in Montgomery County.”

Michael E. Furey, chair of the association’s Law Day Committee, explained Law Day was established in 1958 by President Dwight Eisenhower by proclamation and in 1961, a joint resolution by Congress set May 1 as the official date for celebrating Law Day.

“I guess I was about 11 or 12 years old when I first heard about Miranda Warnings on a police show on TV. Unfortunately, I’m old enough to remember the police shows before the Miranda Warnings were required,” Furey joked, eliciting some laughter from spectators. “Even at that young age it impressed me of how important it was for somebody accused of a crime to be warned of their rights under the law. That made me proud of our justice system and made me want to know more about it. And eventually I wanted to be part of it.”

During the celebration, Carolyn R. Mirabile, president of the bar association, presented county employees Richard Falcone and Cheryl Leslie with the Courthouse Employee Award, for helping the courts administer justice to the citizens of Montgomery County and providing outstanding service on a daily basis. Falcone is a district court senior clerk and Leslie is deputy court administrator in Family Court.

The bar association's Henry Stuckert Miller Public Service Award was presented to lawyer Marilou Watson

Jeannette Fernandez, Gotwals Elementary School principal, received the annual Public Service Award, presented to a non-lawyer who performs outstanding work for county citizens. Lawyer Harry Chung was presented the Pro Bono Volunteer Award.

Chloe Berger, Kate Krakopolsky, Samantha Panich, Ruth Thomas, Katy Blankenhorn, Victoria Mueller and Aviv Reif, students of Lower Moreland High School, also were honored for winning the association’s annual mock trial competition.

Their teacher coach, John Haldeman, and lawyer advisor, Ken Brodsky, also were on hand to share the honor.

Congratulations to all of those honored during the Law Day event.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Sometimes, You Just Need a Little Levity

Amid all the chaos and doom and gloom that unfold in a criminal courtroom on a daily basis, lawyers and judges offer some moments of levity at times. It’s often a welcome part of the day when those involved in such serious, heavy matters can elicit a smile or produce some laughter with a lighthearted comment or anecdote.

Here’s just a few moments of amusement that Mr. Everybody’s Business observed recently in Montgomery County Court.
Montgomery County Courthouse/Photo Carl Hessler Jr.

During a trial in which the identity of a man who fled from Pottstown police was the main sticking point, Assistant District Attorney Benjamin McKenna and defense lawyer Cary B. Hall debated how an officer could identify the defendant three weeks after the police chase when he saw the man walking along a Pottstown street.

McKenna maintained the officer got a good glimpse of the defendant during the chase and recognized him “instantly” when he saw the man in downtown Pottstown several weeks later. During his closing statement to jurors, McKenna tried to make his “instantly” point by snapping his finger. 

The snap was weak, Ben. Barely audible.

“I wish I could snap better,” McKenna mustered up a joke, eliciting laughs from those in the courtroom.

During his closing statement, Hall questioned the ability of police officers to get a good view of the driver of the fleeing car with all the “craziness” surrounding a car chase at night. Hall compared the flashing lights of the chasing police vehicles to the flashing lights in a nightclub.

But then Hall added to the amusement of jurors, “I haven’t been to a club in a while. I’m 45, what kind of club am I going to?”

Five defendants, with five separate lawyers, can be a bit much to accommodate at a single defense table, that’s for sure. So on a recent day when Judge Steven T. O’Neill was presiding over a pretrial hearing for some alleged drug trafficking defendants, the judge noticed there weren’t enough chairs for all the lawyers.

“Are you comfortable, Mr. Reifsnyder?” the judge asked defense lawyer Nicholas Reifsnyder as he stood in the courtroom, while four other lawyers had seats. 
Nicholas Reifsnyder/Photo Carl Hessler Jr.

“I waive the right to a comfortable chair, judge,” Reifsnyder responded, eliciting laughter from his colleagues.

Assistant District Attorney Alec O’Neill offered some levity during a trial last month when he called Pottstown Police Officer Jeffrey Portock as a witness during the trial of an accused Pottstown shooter. O’Neill asked Portock about his law enforcement background and the officer responded that he now is part of the K9 patrol division.
“Is he keeping the car running right now?” O’Neill asked Portock, referring to the K9 partner, a comment that drew laughter and smiles from jurors and Judge Gail Weilheimer.
“He’s keeping watch,” Portock, not missing a beat, responded with humor.

Judge Gail A. Weilheimer/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
During the same trial, Weilheimer got a note from the jurors during their deliberations, asking for another reading of the law for a particular charge. 

As the judge, out of earshot of jurors, conferred with Prosecutor O’Neill and defense lawyer Benjamin Cooper about the wording of her explanation to be read to the jury, Cooper said, “I object, your honor.”

“Why?” Weilheimer asked during the impromptu conversation not heard by jurors.

“Because that’s what he does,” O’Neill uttered quickly with a smile, acknowledging the friendly competition between the lawyers.

Outside of court one day last month, Assistant District Attorney Douglas Lavenberg was asked to comment about the retirement of one of his mentors, Bradford A. Richman, who headed the DUI prosecution unit since it was launched in 2014, a unit where Lavenberg cut his prosecutorial teeth. Lavenberg had glowing comments about Richman, who he likened to a father figure who he could turn to for guidance on the job.

But Lavenberg couldn’t resist the temptation to joke one last time about Richman’s trademark of wearing a bow tie to work each day.
Bradford A. Richman/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

“I really think that Brad’s biggest flaw is his superiority because of his ability to tie a bow tie and he holds that over everyone and says, “If you need lessons come see me.’ Even with those lessons I can’t do it.  So, his superiority complex has really gotten out of control,” Lavenberg laughed good-heartedly.

Thanks to all of those who offer a little levity in court from time to time. Sometimes we just need it.