Sunday, March 29, 2009

PA: Hundreds of juvenile convictions reversed

When Matt Klubeck landed in juvenile court four years ago for throwing a piece of steak at his mother's boyfriend during an argument, he figured the judge would dismiss the simple assault charge that had been lodged against him. Instead, Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella denied Klubeck his right to an attorney, presided over a hearing that lasted barely a minute or two, then forced the 13-year-old — only 4-foot-2 and 82 pounds at the time — to spend 48 terrifying days in a youth detention center.

Klubeck was among hundreds of juveniles Ciavarella sent to a private lockup run by PA Child Care LLC. In exchange, prosecutors say, Ciavarella took millions of dollars in kickbacks in one of the most egregious cases of judicial corruption ever seen.

On Thursday, Pennsylvania's highest court overturned hundreds of juvenile convictions issued by Ciavarella, ruling the disgraced judge violated the constitutional rights of youth offenders who appeared in his courtroom without lawyers between 2003 and 2008.

For Klubeck, who sank into a scared, lonely depression as he did time with much larger boys who had committed far more serious crimes, the decision means vindication — and a fresh start. "This is great. This is great," said an exultant Klubeck, now 17, given the news by a reporter. "I can't believe he tried to ruin kids' lives in exchange for money. I'm glad he got caught."

Federal prosecutors charged 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 last month and face sentences of more than seven years in prison.

"Today's order is not intended to be a quick fix," Chief Justice Ronald Castille said in a statement. "It's going to take some time, but the Supreme Court is committed to righting whatever wrong was perpetrated on Luzerne's juveniles and their families."

The Supreme Court approved the recommendations of Berks County Senior Judge Arthur Grim, whom the justices appointed in February to review cases handled by Ciavarella. He decided that expungement was the most appropriate remedy for low-level offenders who appeared in Ciavarella's courtroom without lawyers — a group he has said numbered "easily into the hundreds."

Under Pennsylvania law, a juvenile may not waive his right to an attorney unless the decision is made "knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily." The judge must also formally question defendants to make sure they understand their rights, something Ciavarella routinely did not do.

In a report to the Supreme Court released Thursday, Grim said he has determined that "a very substantial number of juveniles who appeared without counsel before Judge Ciavarella ... did not knowingly and intelligently waive their right to counsel." Grim next will review cases involving more serious juvenile offenses.

Original report here

(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today)

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