LATE LAST WEEK, the state Supreme Court reproached Common Pleas Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes for altering the courtroom transcript to conceal a disparaging remark she made about a defendant.
Writing for the majority, Justice Max Baer wrote, "To alter an official transcript, the only vehicle through which appellate courts can ensure the due process of law, is reprehensible."
That incident brings me back to the case of Marcus Perez, 40, a Graterford lifer who suffered a one-word transcript change that helped torpedo his appeals.
On April 27, after declining to meet with me, saying he had nothing more to say about the case, D.A. Seth Williams took 655 words in a letter to the editor to dispute several of my columns about Perez. Not one of those 655 words was "justice," which has been my theme.
Contrary to what Williams wrote, I never asked him "to agree to the release of Marcus Perez," I never suggested "the courts should let him out," nor did I even hint Williams' should "wave a magic wand and order the murderer's release." These statements are so wildly off base, I have to question his literacy and honesty.
Since I believe Perez agreed to a plea bargain based on a judge's inaccurate explanation of what it meant, he deserves the sentence as it was described to him. That sentence, no trifle, was 17 1/2 to 35 years. Perez deserved it because he killed a man, which he admits. Instead, he got life without parole and has served 21 years.
Perez has made five appeals, which have been denied, each opposed by the D.A.'s office. I have read the D.A.'s arguments against Perez's appeals, which rest largely on technicalities, rather than "justice."
I did ask the D.A.'s office not to oppose the next appeal, should there be one. Resentencing would not turn Perez loose; it would only make him eligible for parole. He would still have to convince the parole board, which could say no. A just sentence, as I have written before, would not be a "Get Out of Jail Free" card.
Perez deserves the correct sentence because for us to have faith in the law, the law must be fair, accurate and honest.
While the D.A.'s office generates a lot of bluster about minutia, I have the word of Judge Theodore McKee that he made a mistake in his explanation to Perez, in two separate hearings. The judge was "dead-wrong," he says, adding, "I clearly said to him he would not die in prison." Yet that's what's happening, due to the error. McKee has since been elevated to chief judge of the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals and admitting to this mistake cannot be easy for him.
Now we come to a troubling aspect of the case, tying in with the dressing down of Judge Hughes.
Corrections of the record are uncommon, and requests for changes years later are extremely rare, legal authorities tell me.
In the original transcript, McKee told Perez, "Life implies 17 1/2 to 35 years." In the "corrected" transcript, the word "implies" was changed to "plus," meaning Perez would get "Life plus 17 1/2 to 35 years." Why would Perez agree to that?
The D.A. wants us to believe that, unprompted by anyone, the court reporter discovered a four-year-old typo, smacked himself in the head and requested a correction (coincidentally harming Perez's basis for appeal).
That is not believable. In a Feb. 8, 1994, letter, assistant D.A. Jerome Teresinski references a conversation the previous day with the court reporter about a "transcription error."
Who initiated that call, and why? Who said what to whom?
Justice is awaiting a reply.
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