Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Luzerne Co. kickbacks investigation hears testimony

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. - A special panel investigating judicial corruption in Luzerne County heard a woman testify last night that her 14-year-old daughter was sent to jail by former Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. despite her warnings that the girl was epileptic and subject to seizures under stress.

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. - A special panel investigating judicial corruption in Luzerne County heard a woman testify last night that her 14-year-old daughter was sent to jail by former Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. despite her warnings that the girl was epileptic and subject to seizures under stress.

"Two days later, I got a call at 5 in the morning telling me that she had had a seizure," she said. "I almost lost her."

Mother and daughter sat side by side in witness chairs before the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, which is conducting hearings into judicial corruption here.

For at least five years, young defendants routinely appeared in Ciavarella's courtroom without lawyers for hearings that lasted just a few minutes.

After being found delinquent, the youths were taken to private jails, often in shackles. Federal prosecutors charge that the owner of two of the jails paid some $2.8 million in bribes to Ciavarella and former Judge Michael T. Conahan.

The mother said her daughter was released from the detention center, placed under house arrest, and not allowed to go to school despite being an A student.

After being allowed to resume her schooling, she said, her daughter was very introverted. "I had to force her to go to her prom. It's taken a lot of years for her to come out of her shell, and I blame Ciavarella for that."

The girl was accused of defacing public property with a felt pen, using phrases such as "Vote for Michael Jackson."

Her daughter testified that during her hearing, Ciavarella and the policeman who arrested her spent most of the time talking about a previous night's football game.

Asked what she had learned from her experience with the juvenile justice system, she said: "People in power are not always people we should trust."

Seven children and their parents, most of whom were in tears for at least part of their testimony, appeared last night. The commission members appeared shaken and angered by the testimony.

A college student told the commission that when she was 16 years old she was arrested for "giving a police officer the finger."

She said a probation officer advised her that she didn't need an attorney, but Ciavarella sentenced her to two months in prison even though she had no record.

She was placed in shackles and taken out of the courtroom to detention. She said she was a good high school student, involved in numerous extracurricular activities, and plans to go to law school.

A 16-year-old girl who was sent away for eight months by Ciavarella when she was 13 for fighting with another girl in school testified that she had emotional scars from the experience that made her unable to return to school after she completed her sentence. "I am unable to deal with large groups of people, and I am now being homeschooled," she said.

Judge John Cleland of the state Superior Court, chairman of the commission, said the juveniles' testimony would "serve as a reminder to us that court policies and court procedures have real-life consequences for people. Good and bad."

The child defendants were among about 6,000 young people whose convictions were overturned in October by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on grounds they did not get a fair hearing in Ciavarella's court.

Earlier in the day, witnesses painted a picture of a legal establishment bending to the iron will of Ciavarella.

"We trusted the judge," said Thomas Killino, a former assistant district attorney when asked why he did not challenge many of Ciavarella's actions, including illegally obtaining forms from young defendants waiving their right to a lawyer.

Much of the questioning centered on why prosecutors, probation officers, and public defenders did not challenge Ciavarella's failure to explain to defendants the consequences of waiving their right to counsel and of pleading guilty. This process, called a colloquy, is required by state court rules.

"Did it ever bother you that there was no colloquy?" asked George D. Mosee, head of the juvenile division of the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.

"It was a fast-paced environment," Killino replied. "This was the established practice of the court. Everyone went along with it."

Mosee, who oversees the prosecution of about 10,000 juveniles a year, added: "I've never prosecuted a child who didn't have an attorney. How do you handle it?"

Killino said he was told that the defendants had signed written waivers outside the courtroom and that he believed those overrode the requirement for a colloquy in open court to determine that the juveniles understood that they had a right to an attorney.

When Killino confirmed estimates that more than half the child defendants who appeared before Ciavarella did not have attorneys, Judge Dwayne D. Woodruff asked him if he had ever read the juvenile law that required them to have counsel.

Killino said he had read parts of the law but not the entire law.

Later, Woodruff said he had heard about 4,000 juvenile cases and every defendant had a lawyer.

Judge John C. Uhler asked Killino if there were instances when defendants without lawyers were sentenced without ever speaking in their own defense.

Killino said there were, and that in those cases Ciavarella would move right on to sentencing in a matter of minutes.

Later, Uhler said that in his 20 years as a juvenile court judge, no defendant had ever appeared before him without an attorney.

Killino testified that he and other prosecutors did not have enough information available to them to determine whether a sentence from Ciavarella was unduly harsh.

"Didn't you want to know?" demanded Jason D. Legg, a commission member who is a prosecutor from rural Susquehanna County.

"It was not part of our purview," said Killino.

Later, Legg said he prosecutes hundreds of juveniles every year and they always have legal representation.