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Centre County Judge, District Attorney Accused of Bias, DA Says Claim is 'Without Merit'

by on March 06, 2015 11:16 AM

A case surrounding an alleged sexual assault from 2014 has led to new allegations of misconduct among prominent members of the Centre County criminal justice system.

District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller, Assistant District Attorney Nathan Boob and Judge Bradley Lunsford have been accused of creating "a grave appearance of bias" by sending hundreds of text messages while a rape and trespassing case worked its way through the court system. The attorney making the accusation is now asking the court to take action.

In new court documents filed Friday, State College attorney Sean McGraw says the text messages reflect an inappropriately close relationship that prejudiced the court against his client Justin Blake. Blake faces felony charges of burglary, trespassing, assault and rape connected to an incident from State Patty's Day weekend in 2014, when he allegedly broke into a woman's apartment and fondled her while she slept.

According to court documents, McGraw obtained the text message records through a Right to Know request filed with the Centre County government. He says they show that Lunsford and Parks Miller texted each other nearly 300 times between May 19, 2014 and July 18, 2014, which is when Blake appeared before Lunsford for a hearing.

In his motion, McGraw notes that the phone records between Lunsford, Boob and Parks Miller only reveal the times that text messages were sent and received. The records do not reveal the contents of any of the messages.

Parks Miller says the allegations are completely "without merit," and describes McGraw's motion as "an effort to skirt a rape charge before the charge goes to a jury." She says that herself, members of her office and Lunsford work together on the Criminal Justice Advisory Board, often discuss board proposals and agendas over the phone, and often have other after-hours communications regarding search warrants, protection from abuse orders and other work-related topics.

"Contact between the District Attorney and the Courts for our jobs and in order to improve the community should not be vilified," Parks Miller says in an email. "It is a sad day in Centre County when you have defendants trying to get out of their charges by pointing to contact between my office and a judge, even though that contact has nothing to do with pending cases and is permitted and encouraged.

Lunsford was barred from hearing any criminal cases except DUI's in December 2014, so he is no longer presiding over the Blake case. Lunsford's last action in the case was on Dec. 3, 2014 -- two days before his reassignment took effect -- in which he denied a pre-trial motion to lower bail and dismiss some of the more severe charges.

"At a minimum, Parks Miller and Boob maintain some form of relationship with Judge Lunsford causing them to be in regular contact with him via text message," McGraw's writes. "This relationship far exceeds the interactions required for the conduct of courthouse business and litigation."

McGraw asks the court to force Miller, Boob and Lunsford to have their phones inspected to determine the contents of the text messages. He also wants the court to dismiss the rape and sexual assault charges, which were added at Blake's preliminary hearing after his arrest and were not mentioned in the original criminal complaint.

When contacted by StateCollege.com, Lunsford declined comment and explained that judges are not permitted to speak about court matters.

In his motion, McGraw points out that other attorneys have made similar claims against Lunsford and Parks Miller. State College attorney Bernard Cantorna has alleged that Lunsford gave preferential treatment to Parks Miller in a felony child abuse case, and used text message records to back up his argument.

The Centre County Solicitor also sent Lunsford a letter last December, raising concerns that he had reportedly removed documents from the public files of several cases he had presided over. Several of the cases included attempts from defense attorneys to remove him as the presiding judge. In a response to the solicitor, Lunsford said he had returned the files and said the issue was a misunderstanding.

In an unrelated story, Parks Miller has been accused of forging a judge's signature on a fake court order, which she denies. The forgery allegations were made through an affidavit signed by Michelle Shutt, a former paralegal to Parks Miller. McGraw, in addition to his role in the Blake case, also serves as one of Shutt's attorneys.

Multiple sources say the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General is investigating the forgery allegations, but the OAG has repeatedly declined to comment on the status or existence of any investigation.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 4:00 p.m. to include comment from Parks Miller.

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Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for StateCollege.com who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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