State inquiry targets former Washington County judge
The state Attorney General's Office is investigating a former Washington County judge whose order to destroy evidence in 17 criminal cases raised questions among lawyers after his suspension from hearing drug cases.
“I can confirm there is an ongoing attorney general investigation, but I respectfully decline to comment out of respect for the integrity of the investigation,” said Robert Del Greco, the Downtown attorney for former Common Pleas Judge Paul Pozonsky of North Strabane.
Pozonsky, 56, declined to comment.
At least three assistant district attorneys appeared before a state grand jury this month. Investigators have questioned members of the judge's staff. The assistant district attorneys all practiced in front of Pozonsky.
A spokesman for Attorney General Linda Kelly said her office doesn't confirm or deny the existence of secret grand jury investigations.
The focus of the investigation is unclear. Pozonsky resigned June 29 after 14 years on the bench, and a month after county President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca removed him from hearing criminal cases after she learned of the evidence destruction. He earned $169,541 annually.
“I have never seen that in my 36 years in the legal profession,” said O'Dell Seneca, who declined to say why she removed Pozonsky from criminal court, where he presided over a drug-treatment court among other cases. “The procedure is that the District Attorney's Office or Attorney General's Office files a petition with the court asking to destroy the evidence.”
According to criminal complaints, the evidence in some of the cases included crack and powder cocaine, heroin, marijuana and at least $2,000 in cash. The cases stem from arrests by six Washington County police departments and state police.
On May 2, Pozonsky ordered “any and all evidence related to said cases shall be destroyed” because the cases were closed. The four-line order did not specify the evidence in each case and did not direct any agency to carry out the destruction.
District Attorney Gene Vittone's Office, which didn't seek the destruction order, asked Pozonsky on May 9 to reverse his decision, saying one of the cases still could be appealed. Vittone wrote that a blanket destruction order “would permit the undocumented destruction of such evidence outside the knowledge of a responsible agency and without any documentation of the destruction.”
Pozonsky that day partially vacated his original order, but he also filed paperwork indicating the evidence was destroyed on May 3. He did not say who did it.
“Our immediate concern was that there were items of personal property involved,” said Vittone. “It's highly unusual. That's what caught our attention. We had no idea what property was involved.”
Vittone also said he doesn't know what evidence, if any, Pozonsky had in his possession.
“A review is being done — not by this office — of all these property records,” said Mike Lucas, Vittone's first assistant. He declined to elaborate.
Judges in Washington County said they've never known a judge to order the destruction of evidence unprompted by a prosecutor, the police or a defense attorney.
O'Dell Seneca and fellow judges said it's not uncommon for them to hold evidence in criminal cases in locked cabinets in their courtrooms or chambers during trials; however, they typically return the evidence to law enforcement after trials end.
“I wouldn't want anything to get lost or stolen,” Judge Katherine Emery said. “I generally try to keep the evidence at trial because I don't want the defense saying (the other side) altered it. Once it's admitted, I feel it's my responsibility, but I don't see any reason to keep it after.”
At least nine of the 17 cases that Pozonsky handled and for which evidence was destroyed involved drugs.
State police spokeswoman Maria Finn declined to provide a list of evidence seized in the two cases in which that agency was involved or to say if they had possession of it. She said the two cases are part of “an ongoing investigation and we have no comment.” She declined to elaborate but said the state police are participating in that investigation.
Criminal complaints in those cases from 2004 and 2008 show that state police confiscated 10 stamp bags of heroin in one and less than a gram of crack cocaine and $100 cash in the other.
A 2004 case included on the destruction order stemmed from an arrest by Washington police involving involved 28.5 grams of crack cocaine, 11 grams of powder cocaine and $1,578 in cash, documents show. Washington police Chief Robert Lemons could not be reached.
Judges and attorneys said there are no laws or rules governing whether judges or law enforcement should keep evidence during and after cases.
“There is no specific statute. Practices vary from county to county,” said Rich Long, head of the state District Attorney's Association. “Typically, no evidence is destroyed in a case until following the completion of the criminal case.”
Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or email@example.com. Megan Guza is a news intern for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5644 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Sting highlights demand for Pappy Van Winkle bourbon
- New CEO eager to revitalize Pittsburgh International Airport
- Police say couple in Oakland murder-suicide had ‘troubled’ relationship
- Pa. Turnpike claims software fraud, wants $45M
- Pittsburgh mayor denies ethics investigation into his ‘Undercover Boss’ performance
- Goodell defends league, dodges difficult questions
- 2nd lawsuit filed against Gov. Wolf seeking reinstatement of open records director
- Federal grand jury indicts man for violating poultry law while operating illegal slaughterhouse in his Jefferson Hills home
- Week before sentencing, Ferrante seeks acquittal or new trial
- Propel Braddock school bans backpacks, to add metal detectors
- Porch roof collapses in Pitcairn