Despite losing the judge who handled the lion’s share of the criminal caseload halfway through the year, the Washington County district attorney’s office resolved a record number of cases in 2012.
The office resolved 3,209 criminal cases in 2012, nudging out the previous record of 3,201 set the year before, according to District Attorney Gene Vittone.
“When we lost Judge (Paul) Pozonsky, I was really worried that it would explode on us, but the judges, the public defenders and the assistant district attorneys did a heck of a job last year moving it,” he said.
Pozonsky had handled 60 to 70 percent of the criminal caseload before he suddenly retired in June after more than 15 years on the bench amid reports that he was the subject of a state investigation. In early January, Judge Janet Moschetta Bell also retired, bringing the number of occupied courtrooms to four.
While the court waits for the empty seats to be filled by an appointment or election, it has received some help with criminal cases from active Allegheny County Judge Edward Borkowski, while several senior judges assist with those on the civil side.
“(Borkowski) knows criminal law, so that’ll help us immensely,” Vittone said.
While the bulk of the record-setting caseload was resolved by plea last year, a dozen criminal cases went to a jury trial.
Among the year’s more notable prosecutions were three first-degree murder convictions, including those of John I. Bronson Jr. and Michael Duncan for the 2003 murder of a California man and David A. McClelland for the 2011 stabbing death of a 92-year-old Coal Center widow, a neighbor from whom he stole more than $215,000. All three men were sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
In an annual report released last week, Vittone also detailed the office’s other accomplishments in 2012 as well as its goals for this year. The report states that the district attorney’s office collected more than a half million dollars in restitution for victims.
With regard to the Special Victim Investigation and Prosecution Unit, the office prosecuted 43 cases of adult sex crimes and domestic violence and 33 cases of child abuse, sexual assault and exploitation, the report states.
Vittone commended Assistant District Attorney Traci McDonald, who heads up the unit, for her work at the county’s child advocacy center, which he said recently received $25,000 in Local Share Account funds for a new recording system. He recalled a time when prosecutors had to interview children just before heading into the courtroom instead of in a more kid-friendly environment.
“I’d have to get this child who just met me to disclose these horrible things in front of a total stranger in a courtroom in 15 minutes,” Vittone said. “Well, we’ve changed – we’re doing it the right way.”
The office’s Drug Task Force was also overhauled in 2012 to bring the focus back to countywide investigations through collaborative efforts among municipal police departments and other law enforcement agencies.
Last year, the task force conducted 140 drug investigations and arrested 50 drug dealers, according to the report. Almost $20,000 was returned to local municipalities through money seized from drug dealers.
“I was speaking with U.S. Attorney David Hickton. He thinks we’re a crucial county because of the interstates we have coming through the county that make us accessible to drug dealers and people passing through with drugs to get to other areas,” Vittone said.
Earlier this month, Vittone joined Hickton and other law enforcement officials in Pittsburgh to announce that 17 criminal cases had been brought against local straw purchasers accused of buying guns for felons.
The Drug Task Force also initiated a program to address animal abuse, seizing more than 120 birds from a cockfighting operation in Daisytown in August, and executed eight search warrants in July in conjunction with federal and state law enforcement agencies during Operation Log Jam, a national crackdown on synthetic cannabinoids such as K-2 and Spice.
“We got a lot of it out of the county last year,” said Vittone, who indicated he doesn’t care for the misnomer “synthetic marijuana,” since these manmade drugs often contain compounds that are addictive, unlike those naturally found in pot.
He said synthetic cannabinoids first grabbed his attention locally during a hearing for 10 juveniles who were facing probation revocation after testing positive for such substances.
Keeping an eye on the future, Vittone said the office is in the process of looking into a two-year, $250,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency that could be used to hire an investigator and a coordinator for a nuisance abatement program. The effort would help connect law enforcement officials with municipal governments to eliminate nuisance properties before widespread blight takes over an area.
Vittone also hopes to establish a Child Abduction Response Team, as well as restructure the Crime Victims Office in a way that would allow victims to be kept informed of every proceeding.
He said accountability for both the office’s docket and finances remains a goal. He said the former has been improved by adding a second secretary and case-tracking software.
Facing a tough year ahead given the need for two judges, Vittone said he is blessed with a fantastic staff and still loves his work.
“It’s the best job you can have in law,” he said.