By Rick Hiduk
When I commit to being in Towanda for a day and gathering as much Bradford County news as possible, I often fill gaps between meetings and lunch dates by sitting in one of the two courtrooms at the Bradford County Courthouse. I’m often stepping into a hearing, trial, jury selection, or sentencing in progress.
I challenge myself to try to figure out what’s going on and where in the judicial process the defendant and his or her legal team currently are. I’ve sat through enough full court trials and received insightful guidance from the district attorney in Bradford County to be able to tune in and ride along. Otherwise, I have no training as a courtroom journalist and never wrote about crime until I moved back here from Lancaster County.
One day, I stumbled into a juried hearing of an old school friend who was up against second DUI charges. Actually, he was my friend until the first day of sixth grade when he sucker-punched me in front of all of my classmates before we were even let into the building. Then, after not seeing him for nearly 16 years, we stumbled upon each other in a bar, and he took me aside and apologized to me – told me he was afraid that he’d never have the chance to say he was sorry. So, naturally, I forgave him and we had a good time together.
We were both looking much older when I saw him in the courtroom that day. Nineteen years after our last encounter, I’m now mostly gray, and he’s bald. He and his two sons gave nearly identical accounts of his arrest in the early morning hours at his truck parked on the street in front of his home. Police maintained that he had just pulled over, was intoxicated, and was therefore DUI. My old friend and his boys contended that he was only in the truck getting some CDs from above the visor because he and his (over 21) sons were partying in the house.
His story seemed foolproof to me, and he was handling questions from the prosecuting attorney like a pro. I was aware of his arrest shortly after it happened, perceived discrepancies in the affidavit and I thought he had a good shot at winning the case.
I was rooting for him, but I couldn’t stay. I spoke with his sons briefly during a recess and told them that I wished their father well. I was dismayed the next day to find out that he had been sentenced to at least a year in prison. But I couldn’t deny that I had missed most of the trial, and the jury was obviously convinced. They just weren’t prepared to give him another chance, I thought.
Last week, I stepped into the sentencing of a 39-year old woman who was pleading guilty to charges of possession of bath salts with intent to deliver. In fact, she admitted that she delivered the synthetic drug to a confidential informant (CI) for $140, which she subsequently handed over to the supplier. So, she made no profit on the delivery, even though the supplier likely “helped” her out by further feeding her addiction.
In fact, the woman had been set up twice before and her actions recorded. Previous sales were $130 and $125 each. In each instance, she did not keep the money. In the old days, she would have been called a “facilitator” or “mole,” simply helping people obtain drugs.
A “dealer,” on the other hand, actually made money, and it was assumed by many that a facilitator was a neutral role and that he or she was not as guilty. A fellow Tunkhannock High School student who had become a police officer told me back then that anybody who believed that was dreaming. The “mole” goes down just as fast if there is a bust.
Her lawyer, whom I’ve known for about three years, told the judge that she had struggled with substance abuse issues in the past. Due to her most recent problems, her four school-age children were placed into foster care by Children & Youth Services. She was participating in counseling, the attorney related, to help her overcome her addiction so she can get her children back.
“Before drugs, she was a really good person. She kind of had the world on a string,” the lawyer said to the judge. “She’s hit the bottom, and she’s climbing her way back up.”
The attorney asked the judge to sentence his client to probation, insisting that the opportunity would provide her the incentive to maintain her sobriety. The women would be turning 40 in January, he continued. “She’s kind of admitted that she’s getting too old for this kind of nonsense,” the lawyer remarked, adding she has repeatedly expressed remorse for her actions.
Taking the request under advisement, the judge turned his questions to the attractive defendant, who sat erect and attentive beside her counsel. First, he made sure that she fully understood that, by entering a guilty plea, she was forfeiting her right to a jury trial and any outcome that might have followed. In a strong and confident voice, she confirmed that she understood what she was doing.
He then asked her about the CI and her relationship with him.
She said that she had been introduced to him several months prior to the set-up. “We had become friends. He said that he was a gas worker, and he offered me a job,” she explained.
The whole concept of CIs and the rules under which they are permitted to operate make me squeamish. They are usually ex-cons or plea-bargainers turned informant. They know all of the right things to say to get into a vulnerable person’s head, because they have they have already hit rock bottom themselves. In many cases, I’m sure, turning informant was their second and only chance.
So, I’m smelling entrapment at this point. Offer her a job, then drugs. While I was processing that thought, the judge asked her, “Do you feel that you were entrapped?”
Her simple reply was as affirmative as anything else she had said to that point, so I had to believe her – or at least believe that she knew that being slightly dishonest at that point would result in a more desirable conclusion for her.
In response to questions about her struggles with substance abuse, the woman admitted that she had become addicted to methamphetamine about 15 years ago because she had relatives who were manufacturing it. She credited her husband, who was in the courtroom, for helping to clean her up and get her away from drugs.
“My husband is a huge support,” she told the judge. “He’s a good man.”
She started doing bath salts about three years ago when they became readily available, marketed under alluring names like Purple Wave, Vanilla Sky, and Bliss.
“You could get them anywhere then,” she said, noting that she usually purchased hers at a mini mart in Warren Center. She cooked and injected the drug in the beginning but later found snorting the crushed powder more practical. She was addicted to the drug by the time they became illegal in Pennsylvania and had to rely on dealers bringing bath salts over the border from New York state.
Though she considered herself to be off the drug, she admitted to using it just a week prior to the sentencing. “If it’s not around, it doesn’t bother me,” she said. “So I try to stay at home. I try not to go anywhere.” Her next drug and alcohol evaluation was slated for Wednesday, Nov. 20.
The judge turned to the prosecutor for his rebuttal, which was more of simple take on the situation. He appeared to have no serious argument with the defense lawyer’s prognosis, but reminded the judge that possession with intent to deliver a Schedule I drug like bath salts can carry a maximum five-year sentence and fines up to $15,000. He admitted, however, that he would be happy to recoup from the defendant the money the county spent on the three transactions.
Turning back to the woman. The judge said, “It’s pretty clear that you got pretty deeply into this, but I think you have a realization of what it’s done to you,” he stated. “I hope you realize that you have to get off it completely.”
“You’ve reached a fork in the road,” the judge continued. “This is the time to make those changes.”
The judge sentenced the woman to two years of probation, during which time she will be drug tested regularly. Any positive results will send her immediately to prison. She must attend all scheduled counseling sessions and perform community service. He imposed no substantial fines.
The judge concluded by saying, “We hope this sets you on the road to getting your life back in order.”
She got a second chance, and I wish her the best of luck.