State inquiry targets former Washington County judge
By Bobby Kerlik and Megan Guza
Published: Wednesday, July 25, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Megan Guza is a news intern for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5644 or email@example.com.
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