In throwing out an alleged confession in a homicide case, county President Judge Nancy Butts has called District Attorney Eric R. Linhardt on the carpet for allegedly breaking the rules of criminal procedure.
"The district attorney's office has shown an established record of disregarding court orders and failing to change discovery practices," Butts wrote in a recent court order.
Discovery practices protect a defendant's right to a fair trial and ensure that trials run smoothly. In the order, Butts accused Linhardt of breaking the discovery rules that require the prompt disclosure of potential evidence to the defense.
Citing the DA's conduct, Butts threw out an alleged confession of Qu Mar Moore, accused of slaying Kevan James Connelly in Flanigan Park in July 2012.
Saying he is "disappointed" by the decision, Linhardt said the alleged violation was not willful.
"The court's decision to suppress a confession in a murder case for what amounted to an inadvertent oversight cannot be justified. Ultimately, (suppressing) the defendant's confession keeps the jury from knowing the truth," Linhardt said.
Butts acknowledged that the DA "did not willfully hide discovery," but said she believed the failure to fix ongoing problems is "the functional equivalent to willfully violating the rules."
Despite numerous court orders requiring timely disclosure and assurances by the DA that all potential evidence had been provided, the defense received the alleged confession almost a year after it was made, according to Chief Public Defender William Miele.
"The issue is: Are they playing by the rules? No, they're not," Miele said of the DA's office.
The DA claims the evidence was not turned over sooner because "the confession was forgotten and a member of the Williamsport Bureau of Police misfiled the statement," according to Butts.
"How would a police officer not appreciate the seriousness of an alleged confession? How could a DA forget about an alleged confession until a month before trial and suddenly it shows up?" Miele asked.
Agent Trent R. Peacock, the officer accused of misfiling the statement, declined to comment.
Linhardt appealed Butts' decision to throw out the confession to the superior court, claiming it "substantially handicaps the prosecution of (the Moore) case."
"Judge Butts' decision has not only hamstrung our ability to convict a murderer but, more importantly, has punished the community by making it more difficult for us to see that justice is done in this case," Linhardt said.
Butts argued her ruling had "no substantial handicap to the prosecution" because Moore made an additional admissible confession. The slaying also took place in public with numerous eyewitnesses, including the victim's brother, according to Butts.
Miele estimated the appeal could delay Moore's trial by as much as a year, resulting in increased cost to taxpayers in the form of attorney and court time.
"Our clients are sitting in jail, accused of serious crimes, and the cases can't proceed," Miele said.
Three pending homicide cases have had similar discovery issues, as well as the homicide case prior to Moore, according to Butts.
The DA office's faulty discovery process "appears to have plagued every homicide case in this county," Butts wrote.
Linhardt said Butts "appears to have a misconception" about the way in which his office follows the law.
"As prosecutors, we take our responsibility to ensure justice very seriously," Linhardt said. "We simply disagree about how my office appropriately handled this matter."
To avoid delays in the future, the DA's office is transitioning to a paperless system that will enable electronic discovery, according to Linhardt.
"If the president judge believes that there is something that my office could be doing better, I am always open to having those discussions with her," Linhardt said. "An open dialogue is the best way to address concerns with procedures."