A criminal defendant’s supporters find unlikely ally: Philly’s DA
In a rare event, a top supervisor in the Philadelphia District Attorney's office asked a judge to permit family and friends of a robbery defendant back into a courtroom. Fearful of witness intimidation, the assistant district attorney handling the case had asked that they be ordered out during the testimony of the alleged victim. A spokesman for District Attorney Larry Krasner says the supervisor was worried that the judge had committed a legal error in ordering the spectators to leave – thus creating grounds for an appeal.
There was no push-back from lawyers in Courtroom 802 when Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Giovanni Campbell ordered family and friends of a man on trial for a pistol-whipping robbery to leave the room.
The assistant district attorney handling the case had requested the courtroom clearing, worried about witness intimidation. The defendant's lawyer, for his own tactical reasons, had no objection.
Their agreement makes what happened next all the more striking.
Supporters of defendant Allen Robinson, a man with a long criminal record, wanted back inside. They reached out not to his attorney
— but to the highest levels of the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office. And they got action.
District Attorney Larry Krasner dispatched a top aide to the courtroom. There, the aide, Michael Giampietro, reversed the young prosecutor and asked the judge to open the court to the defendant's backers.
His attempt was unsuccessful. But as word of the intervention spread in the city's legal community after the Aug. 10 trial, critics, including former and current city prosecutors, questioned whether the District Attorney's Office had gone to bat for the man it was charged with convicting.
A spokesperson for Krasner said that wasn't so — that Giampietro was actually seeking to "protect a potential conviction."
"There are very specific procedures of how a courtroom should be cleared and those procedures weren't followed," said Ben Waxman, director of communication for Krasner. "The issue that Mike was trying to flag was that the courtroom was not cleared correctly — and that was reversible error."
Waxman said Krasner's role was limited to asking his aide to investigate. That said, Waxman said that Giampietro had concluded that a Robinson conviction might face a successful appeal if his allies were kept out of the room.
There is no record that the DA's Office made that argument in court. Rather, the request that the judge reverse himself was made in Campbell's chambers. Even in that setting, the DA's Office conceded the legal argument described by Waxman wasn't made. The judge, Waxman said, was too dismissive to listen.
Legal experts interviewed for this story questioned the logic of Waxman's account, noting that in their experience it was unlikely the case would be reversed since the defense had not opposed the court's closing.
"It's odd that another district attorney came in and went against the initial district attorney, especially in a case where the defense attorney was agreeing with the district attorney trying the case," said Abbie Heller, a Drexel University law instructor and former public defender who has represented clients before Campbell. "That's strange."
Samuel Stretton, a veteran defense lawyer who has represented many Philadelphia judges in legal proceedings, said the idea that Giampietro was worried about an appeal struck him as "just a manufactured argument to justify the district attorney's conduct here."
Stretton said he found the entire episode inexplicable — especially the involvement of a supervisor in such a routine case. "It's unheard of," he said.
The DA's Office has been under intense scrutiny since Krasner, a longtime defense attorney who specialized in civil rights cases, won election last year. As district attorney, he has won national attention for his new approaches to how defendants are charged, held for trial, and sentenced. But locally, some detractors complain he has been insensitive to victims' concerns while pursuing his reform agenda.
This account of Robinson's trial comes from the official transcript and interviews with Waxman and others with knowledge of what happened. Those include Robinson's lawyer, Guy Sciolla, and the two Robinson supporters who directly solicited help from the District Attorney's Office.
Campbell, the judge, declined comment. The DA's Office would not permit any staff involved in the case — including Giampietro and the case's assigned prosecutor, Mark Burgmann — to be interviewed.
A long criminal record
The trial itself concerned a rather ordinary robbery, ugly in its details, but otherwise little different from scores of cases that unfold every day in Philadelphia's Criminal Justice Center. Robinson was among the more than 2,000 robbery suspects arrested yearly in Philadelphia.
Prosecutors charged Robinson, 41, with repeatedly slamming a handgun into the head of his victim, Steven Priester-Grabe, on Feb. 6, 2017, in Mount Airy, opening up a bloody head wound. The defense said that Robinson only struck back when sucker-punched and that he had no gun.
Robinson had already run up a lengthy criminal record. In his 20s, he served two prison terms for gun-related convictions. In 2008, he was arrested again on a firearms charge, allegedly carrying a Glock, illegal for a felon. A judge ruled the search illegal.
In 2009 and 2010, police arrested Robinson twice more, each time for confrontations with the same man — in incidents that involved allegations of witness intimidation and possession of firearms. Both cases were also dismissed.
His latest case put him before Campbell in a nonjury trial. Robinson was one of 13 defendants scheduled that day before Campbell. Tensions between accusers and the accused often can run high in the Criminal Justice Center, and in the Robinson case, all the pressure-cooker ingredients were in place when the trial began.
Robinson and the alleged victim knew each other, having relationships with two sisters who were mothers of their children.
The case was being prosecuted by Burgmann, a relatively new assistant district attorney who joined the office in 2015 soon after graduation from Temple law school. Sciolla, with more than 40 years of experience, represented Robinson.
On the eve of the trial, Burgmann told Sciolla he would seek to have the courtroom cleared during Priester-Grabe's testimony due to the possibility of audience members intimidating him while he was on the stand, Sciolla said in an interview last week.
Sciolla viewed Priester-Grabe as an erratic witness who might be more likely to make "wild allegations" of intimidation if people were allowed to stay and watch. So when the time came, Sciolla said he had "no problem with the judge's decision" to clear the courtroom.
But people in the courtroom did.
"Ain't this a public trial?" the transcript quotes one as saying from a gallery seat after it was announced that family and friends of Robinson would have to leave. Others were permitted to stay.
Two of those ordered out appealed to the District Attorney's Office.
One was Dorothy Johnson-Speight, a longtime antiviolence activist and founder of Mothers in Charge, a group that helps troubled youths. Robinson, she said in an interview, was a volunteer with her group and mentored young men.
In the interview Thursday, Johnson-Speight criticized the judge's action.
"There was no intimidation. There was no rowdiness in the courtroom," she said. "I didn't go there to intimidate anybody."
Upset, she walked the two blocks from the Criminal Justice Center to the District Attorney's Office. There, she spoke with Jody Dodd, whom Krasner appointed this year as Restorative Justice facilitator. That is a new position in the office's Victim Services unit that is aimed, in part, at finding ways for victims and perpetrators to reconcile.
Dodd previously worked as the office manager for Krasner's legal defense practice. She joined the DA's staff as part of Krasner's sweeping shake-up of office personnel.
The other Robinson supporter to reach out to the District Attorney's Office was Harrod E. Clay Jr., pastor of a Baptist church in Glassboro, N.J., an activist on criminal-justice issues. He telephoned Arun Prabhakaran, Krasner's chief of staff, to complain.
In an interview Thursday, Clay said that Prabhakaran asked him to calm down.
"I'm not calming down," he said, describing his mood at that instant. "This is unprecedented. This is unheard of. That judge, the courtroom, that building are all the result of taxes that we the citizens of Philadelphia pay. That we would be put out is unprecedented."
Word of the conflict reached Krasner. The DA then sent Giampietro, the veteran defense lawyer whom Krasner appointed in February to be a special adviser at a yearly salary of $160,000. His job includes troubleshooting issues that arise in court.
(Giampietro and Krasner are friends and former business partners. In a May 2018 financial disclosure, Krasner listed Giampietro as a personal and business creditor in 2017. The unspecified debt was subsequently settled, Krasner said.)
Waxman said the district attorney knew little about what happened in Courtroom 802.
"Larry didn't know who had contacted our office, the specifics of the case, or other details. He just heard that there were reports of a problem and sent Mike over to check it out," Waxman said.
Giampietro headed to the Justice Center, where he encountered Clay.
"You better get us back in that courtroom," Clay said he told Giampietro. "Whatever you need to do."
At the request of Burgmann and Giampietro, the judge held a conference in his chambers with all the attorneys, including Sciolla, to discuss letting Robinson's supporters back in the courtroom. Sources said Burgmann was troubled by Giampietro's intervention. Waxman said he would not discuss the reaction of the young attorney. No transcript was kept of the discussion in the judge's chamber.
According to Waxman, Giampietro told the judge that he was "going to have to let the people back in the room." In an interview, Sciolla said Giampietro "was just asking the court to reconsider allowing people in."
Waxman said that Giampietro had concluded the judge had mishandled the situation in a way that could jeopardize a conviction.
To support that account, Waxman pointed to a pamphlet prepared by the Philadelphia courts instructing judges on how to deal with witness intimidation. It recommends fact-finding hearings to confirm that a witness' fear is well-placed before excluding spectators. Campbell held no such hearing in the Robinson case.
Waxman cited a 1989 state Superior Court ruling, reversing a Philadelphia murder conviction on grounds that the judge had improperly cleared the courtroom during the testimony of a key witness. In that case, the defense attorney had protested the clearing.
Waxman also disputed the significance of Sciolla's assent to the clearing of the courtroom.
"The right to public access to a trial is not something that can be waived by a defense attorney," he said. "If that right is denied, it can always be grounds for appeal."
Among those who found Waxman's explanation a stretch was Clay, the minister who called the office's chief of staff to complain about the ouster in the first place.
"With respect to that nonsense they're floating," he said, referring to the worry that the case could be appealed, "that's nonsense."
A tense meeting in chambers
In any event, Waxman said, Giampietro was never able to make any legal argument to the judge during the "very brief meeting" in chambers.
"He tried to express that to the judge and my understanding is the judge was not particularly interested in having the conversation," Waxman said. "Mike didn't get to say anything of this."
Waxman said that the judge reacted sardonically to Giampietro's appearance in his chambers that day, saying in effect, "So you're trying the case now?"
Ultimately, the judge ignored Giampietro, admitting Robinson's supporters back only for the verdict.
In the end, the judge said he didn't believe either Robinson or Priester-Grabe. Since it was the prosecution's job to prove its case, Campbell said, he was acquitting Robinson.
There will be no need for a defense appeal.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Ben Waxman, spokesperson for District Attorney Larry Krasner, had assigned blame for what the office saw as a potential legal error in closing the courtroom to the defendant's supporters.