Judge dismisses felony charges

Prosecution runs out of time in robbery cases

September 2, 2014
Michael Stienstraw, right, thanks his attorney, Peter Marcoline, after walking out of Washington County Courthouse a free man Tuesday. - Barbara S. Miller / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

The judge called the circumstances “confusing,” but after an hourlong hearing Tuesday he dismissed charges against a Claysville man in connection with two robberies that took place in the spring of 2013 in South Strabane and Canton townships, because he was not brought to trial within 365 days of his arrest.

Both Washington County Children and Youth Services and the Washington County Adult Probation office knew Michael G. Stienstraw, 28, lived at 88 Rock Hollow Road, but the district attorney’s office was sending notices of court appearances to Stienstraw’s former address, an apartment on Jefferson Avenue, Washington, where he lived for six to eight months.

“I never had my mail delivered there,” Stienstraw said of the apartment he shared with his then-girlfriend, the mother of his child.

Stienstraw was required to serve 60 days on electronic home monitoring between April 29 and June 28, 2013, for a conviction of driving while his license was suspended for a previous driving under the influence offense. A CYS caseworker has also been visiting the home Stienstraw shares with his father and young daughter.

In spring 2013, Stienstraw was charged with committing a robbery at Isaly’s convenience store, 2400 Jefferson Avenue, Canton Township, and of holding up a Four Star Pizza deliveryman on East Maiden Street, South Strabane Township.

Stienstraw retained the services of private counsel, Peter V. Marcoline III, but when he was being held in Washington County jail on a bench warrant, he filled out an application for an attorney provided at taxpayer expense. Because he had co-defendants – one of whom was represented by the public defender’s office – in the robbery cases, he was potentially eligible for what is known as “court-appointed conflict counsel.”

Judge Gary Gilman appointed Molly Maguire Gaussa to represent Stienstraw, and, as his most recent attorney of record in March of this year, it was she that the district attorney’s office notified of Stienstraw’s court dates.

“I didn’t even know who she was,” Stienstraw said after the hearing of letters about scheduled court appearances he received from Gaussa, so he disregarded them. Marcoline on Aug. 28 filed motions with the court to toss the charges against his client, asserting that too much time had elapsed and that Stienstraw was denied his right to a speedy trial, even if one subtracted the time there was a bench warrant against him for failing to appear in court.

Assistant District Attorney John Friedmann called both Deputy District Attorney Joseph Zupancic and Gaussa to the witness stand in attempt to demonstrate that the prosecution of Stienstraw was actively pursued.

The district attorney’s office was offering him 3 to 6 years in prison in exchange for a guilty plea, and if Stienstraw rejected that, a jury was to be selected Sept. 8. Gaussa said she had no success in contacting Stienstraw.

Friedmann contended the online database for the state judicial system continues to show Gaussa as Stienstraw’s attorney, and that his case couldn’t be called for trial until this month because there traditionally have been no jury trials scheduled in Washington County Court in August, which was once known as the “bar holiday.”

DiSalle said he presided at no jury trials in July, so Stienstraw could have been called to court then.

Marcoline invoked what he called an unwritten rule in Washington County Court that “private counsel takes precedence” over court-appointed attorneys or the public defender.

“This could have been resolved by a single phone call. Why not contact already retained private counsel? I don’t see any due diligence in this case,” Marcoline argued, and DiSalle agreed.

The judge, however, spoke sternly to Stienstraw, reminding him that, as the father of a child, he has an opportunity to “turn your life around and become a productive member of society.”

District Attorney Gene Vittone said after the hearing that he will examine DiSalle’s order to see if the prosecution has grounds to appeal to Superior Court.

Dismissal of the charges against Stienstraw is the third case recently deemed to have been belatedly brought to trial. A drug case involving Andre Taylor and an attempted homicide charge against Tyrone Lett were dismissed in late August because they were not brought to trial within 365 days, as required under state Rule 600.

“This is the reality,” Vittone said. “The case list has increased 26 percent over the past few years with more than 3,100 defendants. These do happen in every county. It’s not an excuse.”

He has already identified technology that can help his office track cases, but it probably won’t come online until next year.

Different databases that are used by the district attorney’s office and clerk of courts don’t interact. He’d prefer systems that could do so.

He also hopes to discuss with the court an increased number of days that juries can be chosen.

“There are some cases that just won’t resolve without the imminent threat of a jury trial,” Vittone said. “We need sufficient opportunities to pick juries before we run into a deadline. The last date I could pick a jury was July 6. We pick juries nine days a year in this county. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find another county our size or with our case volume that has as few jury selection days.”

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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