By MICHAEL RUBINKAM, The Associated Press Updated 5:37 PM Friday, July 17, 2009
WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — For years, prosecutors in northeastern Pennsylvania stood by and did nothing as a corrupt judge systematically violated the rights of more than 6,000 youth offenders who appeared in his courtroom, lawyers for some of the children asserted in court Friday.
Prosecutors in the Luzerne County district attorney’s office had an obligation to report the judge’s conduct, but chose to ignore it because “they wanted to get a conviction at any price,” Marsha Levick of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center said at a hearing to determine how to restore the juveniles’ legal rights.
District Attorney Jackie Musto Carroll vehemently denied the allegation, asking a judge for the right to retry youths who were locked up for serious crimes including rape and arson.
In one of the most egregious cases of judicial corruption ever seen, federal prosecutors charged Mark Ciavarella and another Luzerne County judge, Michael Conahan, with taking $2.6 million in payoffs to put juvenile offenders in privately owned lockups. The judges pleaded guilty to fraud and face more than seven years in prison.
Children routinely appeared in front of Ciavarella without lawyers for hearings that lasted only a few minutes. The judge also failed to question young defendants to make sure they fully understood the consequences of waiving counsel and pleading guilty, ignoring rules of procedure and long-established case law.
“We are dealing with an unprecedented, pervasive, systematic, ongoing denial of children’s constitutional rights,” said Levick, blasting prosecutors for remaining silent.
But Carroll said prosecutors acted in good faith and were under no responsibility to challenge the judge’s actions. She called the allegation of prosecutorial misconduct “completely meritless and baseless,” pointing out there is no contention that prosecutors were aware of the kickback scheme.
Carroll told Judge Arthur Grim, who is handling the matter for the state Supreme Court, that the justice system must not lose sight of the victims.
“Everyone is saying the poor kids, the poor kids. But what about the crimes they did commit?” she said.
Carroll also warned that some of the offenders who remain locked up are not yet rehabilitated and may pose a threat to themselves or the community if they are released.
The state Supreme Court has already overturned hundreds of juvenile convictions involving low-level offenses. Friday’s hearing — which took place in the same courtroom where Ciavarella heard juvenile cases — focused on youths convicted of more serious crimes.
Both Levick and Carroll said those convictions should also be set aside. But they were in sharp disagreement over whether prosecutors should have the right to bring dangerous offenders back into court for retrials.
Levick said the constitutional prohibition on double jeopardy means that offenders may not be retried.
Carroll said prosecutors cannot be held responsible for the judicial corruption scandal that has tainted as many as 6,500 convictions. She said that offenders are entitled to new proceedings, not clean slates.
“Come on back,” she said. “We’ll do it the right way.”