James Cheatham is a forgiving man, but after getting robbed of $60 on his birthday while trying to perform an act of kindness, he had little reservation about testifying in court.
Plus, the 45-year-old father of three from Queen Village had a subpoena to show up in court about the September incident, and he knew he couldn't ignore it.
Which is why Cheatham was confused when, he says, a public defender called him twice before a scheduled February trial to tell him he didn't have to worry about court - that there was nothing a judge would do if he didn't show.
The public defender, Frederick Lowenberg, suggested, "Do not answer the district attorney's phone calls," Cheatham said Tuesday after a hearing in the case.
At the hearing, the Defender Association of Philadelphia removed Lowenberg from the case amid allegations of possible witness tampering.
"He was discouraging a victim of a crime, not to come to court," Assistant District Attorney Caroline McGlynn said of Lowenberg after the brief hearing. "If a friend of a defendant did that, that would be intimidation."
The controversy has slowed the already plodding pace of justice. The Cheathams face more court dates while the defendant sits in jail.
"Nobody wins here," Cheatham said.
Public defenders are permitted to contact witnesses before trial, but their questions must stick to the facts of the case, said Jodi Lobel, deputy of the trial division for the District Attorney's Office.
"He could have succeeded in having a victim of a crime not show up to court," Lobel said. "That cannot be ignored or sanctioned."
Lowenberg, a public defender for three years, declined comment. His supervisor, Karen Wolfe, said her office only sought to replace him with outside counsel because of a "potential conflict of interest," as Lowenberg could be called to testify as a witness.
If anything, there may have been a misunderstanding, she said.
"I have 100 percent confidence that no matter what was said, Mr. Lowenberg did not tell the witness not to come to court or not to cooperate with the district attorney," she said.
Cheatham is a Navy veteran, originally from Michigan, who is out of work from his bartender job. He sat with his wife, Deborah, after the hearing.
"No, we never talked about the case," he said of the conversations with Lowenberg. "We only talked about not going."
On Sept. 17, Cheatham was walking home along Fourth Street from Lickety Split on South Street, where he went to have a birthday beer and watch Monday Night Football. Nearly home, he bumped into Omar Bangura, a neighborhood homeless man he often gave a few dollars for pizza. When Cheatham took out his money, Bangura, 42, allegedly swiped all of it and ran.
Bangura has been accused of doing that type of thing before. In 2006, he allegedly snatched $40 from a man near Fourth and Christian Street. In 2008, he was charged with taking $40 from a man at gunpoint on South Street.
Those cases, like many cases in Philadelphia, fell apart when witnesses failed to appear. Bangura was represented by public defenders, but not Lowenberg, in those cases.
Cheatham didn't really want to bother going either. But his wife works as a paralegal and said he could not ignore a subpoena.
Lowenberg called him shortly before the trial date.
"He introduced himself and asked if I was planning on going to court," Cheatham said. "I was kind of chuckling and said, 'Well, I sure don't want to, but yeah.' "
Lowenberg told him he had never seen a judge issue a bench warrant for a victim who failed to show up, Cheatham said.
"He said, 'I could get disbarred for saying this, but you don't have to answer the district attorney's calls,' " Cheatham recounted.
Cheatham asked his wife about it.
"That's crazy. He can't say that to you," Deborah Cheatham told him.
The next time Lowenberg called, the public defender tried telling Cheatham how Bangura was "a great guy," Cheatham said.
That made Cheatham angry. He put on the speakerphone so his wife could hear.
Lowenberg was "more explicit" this time, reiterating that he could ignore the district attorney if he wanted to, Cheatham said. He asked Lowenberg if he was threatening him, cursed him out, and hung up, Cheatham said.
Depending on the facts, Lowenberg could face a hearing in front of the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, said Samuel C. Stretton, a lawyer who has experience representing lawyers in judicial disciplinary trials.
Lowenberg could lose his law license, face lesser sanctions, or simply be required to apologize, Stretton said.
"It could be a serious case, or it could be a case of a young, overzealous attorney trying to be an advocate for his client while not realizing there's a line you cannot cross," he said.
Lobel said her office had not decided what action it might take.
Cheatham and his wife, whose children are 10, 11 and 12, face the aggravation of more court dates, time off work for her, and babysitting costs.
"It's already cost me three times the 60 bucks I lost," Cheatham said.