BEDFORD COUNTY, Pa. (WTAJ) — Two Bedford County criminal cases have been dismissed after the county’s president judge found prosecutors violated the defendants’ constitutional rights.
Both are unrelated cases where police charged each defendant with sex crimes against children, and both were dismissed with prejudice – meaning prosecutors can’t refile the charges.
Bedford County President Judge Travis Livengood didn’t mince words in laying the blame for the dismissal of two serious criminal cases at the feet of District Attorney Lesley Childers-Potts in two court opinions that came within a week of one another in late July and early August.
Judge Livengood even went so far as to say he believed the district attorney’s office intentionally caused a mistrial in the case of Jerry Williams on May 26. Williams was accused of sexually assaulting a girl between the time she was 8 and 10 years old, starting In 2014, according to the charges filed against him.
Judge Livengood declared a mistrial during questioning of a state trooper when Assistant District Attorney Johnathan Thomas asked whether the trooper had ever questioned Williams and then followed up by asking the trooper why he had not.
“Any competent prosecutor should know that the Commonwealth cannot ask any questions commenting on a defendant’s silence,” Judge Livengood wrote in the Aug. 3 opinion. The judge pointed out Thomas knew Williams refused to talk to police and any “competent prosecutor would know these questions would undoubtedly cause a mistrial.”
The judge also admonished Childers-Potts for being on her phone while the assistant district attorney was questioning the trooper even though Thomas had caused a mistrial in another case the month before by doing the exact same thing.
“As such, we find that the Commonwealth’s conduct to be of such reckless and unjustifiable nature that the constitutional protections against double jeopardy require dismissal of all charges against the Defendant with prejudice,” the judge wrote.
While the judge added he only needed to find the conduct reckless, he also said evidence suggested prosecutors intentionally caused the mistrial. Judge Livengood highlighted the “absolutely nonsensical – and inconsistent – explanation for asking the questions at issue” as evidence it was done on purpose along with the timing of the mistrial – during the questioning of the last witness before the prosecutors rested their case. He also pointed out Childers-Potts immediately conceded the motion for a mistrial by William’s attorney Theodor Krol as evidence it was intentional.
Childers-Potts addressed the mistrial and the judge’s opinion in a statement to WTAJ News.
“As prosecutors and police officers, we are aware that we are held to a higher standard,” Childers-Potts wrote. “We accept that as part of our positions, but that also sometimes means we are not treated in a way that would typically be considered fair.
“We are frequently the target of criticism and ridicule” she continued. “We know that comes with the territory and we accept it. That doesn’t always make it easy to endure. We are still human, subject to making mistakes and having faults, just like everyone else. We do our best to avoid making mistakes.”
Childers-Potts went on to say it was difficult to do the job while facing constant “ridicule” in the courtroom.
“It’s hard to be at the top of your game when public ridicule from authority figures in the courtroom is a near-daily occurrence,” Childers-Potts added. “ In addition to attempting to seek justice for victims, we are honest in what we present in court and try to represent the county with integrity. “
In the case against Brian Harris, who was facing rape of a child and related charges over allegations he sexually assaulted a young girl in 2016, was dismissed after prosecutors violated Harris’ right to a speedy trial, according to the July 28 opinion.
The judge pointed out state police filed charges against Harris on April 29, 2021, but troopers took no steps to arrest him until a trooper faxed his arrest warrant to the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office on Feb. 3, 2022. Harris was arrested that same day at his Taneytown, Md., home, where the judge pointed out Harris had been living for at least 21 years.
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Under Rule 600 of Pennsylvania Criminal Procedure, the trial in a court case where a criminal complaint is filed must start within 365 days from the date the charges are filed. The judge pointed out that even with the long delay in arresting Harris, the district attorney’s office still had enough time to bring the case to trial.
The judge also pointed out prosecutors made no attempt at proving due diligence in getting the case to trial or arguing to invoke what is called “excluded time” — filings or hearings by the defendant that would cause delays – and would have brought the case within the 365-day window.
In the second case, Childers Potts said she disagreed with many of the characterizations in that opinion and said while the judge tried to place the blame exclusively on her office, it was an unrealistic expectation of the court to bring such a serious case to court in such a short time frame. She pointed out that once the criminal charges were filed, it is up to the police to find and arrest the suspect.
She noted the Bedford state police station saw “significant staff change” at that time and the warrant wasn’t served in a timely fashion. Childers Potts said that was the primary reason for the Rule 600 violation and not considering other factors while blaming her office was “an obvious attempt to cast as much blame on the DA’s office as possible, despite what testimony and other facts may have indicated.
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There was one thing Childers-Potts did agree with in the opinion.
“There was an obvious Rule 600 violation,” Childers-Potts said. “The District Attorney was unwilling to argue that a violation did not occur.”
She said it is the Commonwealth’s responsibility to prosecute criminal matters and there is also a responsibility to seek justice.
“Sometimes that means acknowledging that a case cannot be prosecuted, despite the fact that the violation was not a result of error or mishandling by the District Attorney’s Office,” Childers-Potts said.