One judge has put Luzerne County on the map and embroiled it in one of the worst corruption scandals in the annals of the court system, causing a prosecutor to opine it will never be fixed in our lifetime.
One judge says although he has been convicted of certain crimes, he is not guilty of the ones that have given him the most notoriety.
One judge once had an 11-year old boy in his courtroom who couldn’t pay a fine. That judge says the boy can stay until he pays the fine. “Put the cuffs on him and take him out of here. We’re having a good day,” he reportedly said.
One judge says that although an 11 year old did appear in front of him, the boy was out of custody by the afternoon.
One judge sent away a high schooler who created a fictitious MySpace page about a school administrator, harshly admonishing her for the offense.
One judge says he did everything he could for kids who appeared in his courtroom and never violated their rights.
Both sleep in a federal prison cell somewhere in America tonight and they are named Mark Ciavarella.
For those who attended Thursday’s sentencing of the former Luzerne County judge, they heard a tale of yin and yang, good and bad, Christ and anti-Christ. For you see, one side of the aisle painted Ciavarella as a callous destroyer of the juvenile justice system and the other side portrayed him as the community-minded public servant who helped kids at the CYC pool and on the Little League diamond.
In the middle of the pendulum sat U.S. Judge Edwin Kosik, a Reagan-appointee and retired full bird colonel from the U.S. Army Reserve. Stern and punctual, Judge Kosik arrived at nine bells and handed out his decision shortly after 10. The sixty some minutes in between offered a fascinating insight into the prosecution and defense’s opinion of a fair and just punishment for the former judge, who was convicted of 12 federal charges earlier this year, including racketeering and tax fraud. The genesis of the conviction was money paid to a sitting judge who presided over juvenile court to make a developer of a juvenile detention center’s facility a reality.
The defense did their best to discredit and discount the public outrage over the matter, which compelled many people to write letters about their experiences in Ciavarella’s court and minimize the testimony of a host of young men and women who appeared in front of the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, many of them tearing open old scars in the process. The defense also dismissed the idea that Ciavarella was the father of Luzerne County’s “zero tolerance” policy, which is interesting because the defendant toured many a local school touting his toughness. No, that policy was the baby of former Judge Patrick Toole. Here, failure truly became an orphan.
Then, Mark Ciavarella took to the podium for what may be his last in person appearance in a courtroom for some time and took full advantage of opportunity to weave a narrative of a wanton and reckless prosecution team, hellbent on putting him away using any trick in the prosecutor’s manual, including omission, intimidation, poor wordplay and media collusion. Lawyers who sat with us thought he might not say anything that might damage his appeal. By the time Ciavarella was done, they were certain they were correct.
All started well. Ciavarella apologized to Luzerne County citizens, the bench, the bar, the probation department and even juveniles who may have detected his hypocrisy. Then, the soliloquy turned into an insistence that he originally would plea to an honest services fraud, nothing more, nothing less. He would also fess up to a tax charge. Ciavarella said U.S. Attorney Gordon Zubrod didn’t stick with the script, and he insisted Zubrod changed the tenor of the case with three words that will live in infamy: “kids for cash.”
“He backdoored me and I never saw it coming,” said Ciavarella, who stated the phrase made him “the anti-Christ and the devil” in the court of public opinion.
Ciavarella said he was willing to release a file of his court paperwork and would allow anyone to read it.
“This has never been a search for the truth,” he asserted.
He then launched into accusations of threats to indict his daughter and inaction against a Pennsylvania businessman in the scheme “because of who he is.”
Ciavarella also assessed his own performance on the bench. “I never violated one child’s rights,” he commented, much to the displeasure of a group of parents in the overflow courtroom where we watched his speech on closed circuit tv. Considering some of the stories they’ve shared with the media, their composure was remarkable.
U.S. Prosecutor Gordon Zubrod wasted little time in laying into Ciavarella in his appeal for life in prison _ until natural death. Attorney Zubrod reference writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a Russian novelist who knew all too well the depths of human despair brought on by his own suffering and incarceration for using his voice to challenge an unfair system. He stated that Dostoyevsky didn’t write a book called “Crime and Indictment,” but chose the title “Crime and Punishment,” because that’s the deal.
Attorney Zubrod referenced the day in mid February when Ciavarella stood on the steps of the courthouse and “declared he had been vindicated and declared victory.” Zubrod rejected Ciavarella’s admission of honest services fraud was prettier than the actual picture, noting Ciavarella used straw corporations and pass through people to funnel his ill gotten gains. Zubrod said the former president judge was nothing more than “a paid lackey for one of the parties.”
Zubrod said that although the court system has spoken, Ciavarella isn’t hearing what it said. He returned to that Friday in February, when Mark Ciavarella’s victory speech was overwhelmed by the raw emotions of Sandy Fonzo, the mother of a juvenile who appeared before Ciavarella, spiraled through early adulthood and ultimately took his own life.
Zubrod said Ciavarella could have left quietly, but instead chose to reopen closed wounds while claiming vindication without regard to community suffering.
Zubrod saved the best for almost last. “The criminal justice system is in ruins and will not recover during our lifetime.”
Somebody had to say it, and Zubrod’s words hung in the air like a knuckle ball. If this is the feeling of a prosecutor, what would the judge think?
Judge Kosik’s pronouncement came quickly. Calling sentencing “never a pleasant task,” he lowered the boom on Ciavarella with a sentence of 336 months. The media math majors got busy and figured this was 28 years.
On the steps where he enjoyed a pleasant day in the heart of February, there was no joy for Attorney Al Flora. While his client was being shackled in an upstairs courtroom, a solemn and patient Flora answered question after question from the media while being peppered with derisive comments from onlookers who didn’t care much for his opinion. Flora, who defended mass murderer George Banks, has been known to file an appeal or two, so don’t assume this is truly the end.
Although their gentle demeanor belies their tenacious pedigrees, U.S. Attorney Peter Smith and Zubrod stood on the same steps where Ciavarella and Flora declared victory over the government in February. Spontaneous applause broke out. There were tempered remarks about justice being served and a tip of the cap to the people who continued to have faith even when they felt helpless. In a town where most endings seem to come with a heavy dose of melancholy, this morning in August felt different. In a town where people accept losing while their chins rest on their chests, many had their heads held high.