A veteran Philadelphia homicide prosecutor was ordered into custody Wednesday after a key witness recanted a statement, a corroborating witness could not be located, and the prosecutor got into an argument with the judge.
Tempers flared and voices rose. Municipal Court Judge Karen Y. Simmons warned Assistant District Attorney Richard Sax to lower his voice and not interrupt. The argument got hotter, and Simmons warned Sax she would hold him in contempt of court.
Sax, apparently worried that Simmons was about to dismiss the case against accused killer Lamont Davis, responded, "Carry through on your threat."
She did, and Sax was led from the courtroom by a deputy sheriff a few steps behind Davis, who had been removed after the stalemate developed during his preliminary hearing.
Sax, 61, who joined the District Attorney's Office in 1980, spent about an hour in the holding area off the courtroom before Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Selber, chief of the homicide division, and assistant chief Joanne Pescatore arrived and arranged his release.
It could have been worse. Simmons set bail at $5,000 and ordered that Sax post 10 percent. At one point, when a deputy came into the room and asked the judge what he should do with Sax, she replied, "Put him on the bus" - that takes detainees to the prison complex in Northeast Philadelphia.
After a conference with Selber and Pescatore, Simmons agreed to let Sax sign his own $5,000 bond, and he was led from the courtroom.
Neither Selber nor Sax would comment as they left court.
Simmons set Aug. 23 for Sax's contempt hearing. She rescheduled Davis' preliminary hearing for Aug. 24.
Davis, 38, is charged with murder in the Nov. 15 shooting of 18-year-old Tyreek Helton at 22nd and Mifflin Streets in South Philadelphia.
Sax's problems began with his first witness, Lamont Miller, 43. Sax showed him a Feb. 25 statement in which he purportedly told homicide detectives that Davis admitted to him that he shot and killed Helton because he believed the teen had stolen his car.
Even before he was sworn in, Miller's eyes widened in apparent horror and he began mumbling, "What? Homicide? I didn't see no homicide."
In courtroom parlance, Miller then "went south" - recanted his statement - and insisted that the words on the page were not his. He also denied signing the bottom of each page of the statement. And he vouched for Davis, saying, "He's not that type."
Sax called in police Detective Stephen Gormley, who testified that Miller had long been a source of his and had called him to say he knew who killed Helton. Gormley said he called homicide detectives, who brought Miller in to give a statement.
Usually, a prosecutor confronted with a key witness who recants calls the detective to corroborate the statement.
But the detective who took the statement, Philip Nordo, was elsewhere in the courthouse and could not be reached, and defense attorney Timothy J. Tarpey would not agree to acknowledge that had Nordo been present, he would have corroborated Miller's statement.
Simmons berated Sax for Nordo's absence and gave him five minutes to find the detective.
Out went Sax. Five minutes became 11, and when Sax returned without the witness, Simmons was not amused.