Concerns Raised Over Reports of Centre County Judge Removing Documents From Public Files
Questions have been raised by Centre County officials about whether Centre County Judge Bradley Lunsford properly handled and preserved court documents.
According to Centre County Solicitor Louis Glantz, Lunsford removed documents from the public files of several criminal cases. Each of the cases in question included an attempt to remove Lunsford as the judge presiding over the case.
In one of those cases, Lunsford had also previously been accused of bias and giving prosecutors preferential treatment. In that case from Oct. 2014, Lunsford sentenced a State College woman, Jalene McClure, to up to 20 years in prison following her conviction for aggravated assault of a child.
Bernard Cantorna, the defense attorney in the McClure case, objected and filed a post-sentencing motion demanding to have a new trial with a different judge. Cantorna's motion included evidence that he claims demonstrates an inappropriately close relationship between Lunsford and the office of Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller. Cantorna believes that may have given the appearance of bias and prejudiced the court against his client.
Cantorna's motions were ultimately denied, and some of the evidence he submitted was stricken from the record, leading to questions about whether Lunsford attempted to remove documents from public files.
Glantz says he was contacted by the Centre County Prothonotary’s Office in Dec. 2014, informing him that Lunsford had not returned several documents in the McClure case to their home in the public file. Other documents from two other criminal cases were also reportedly missing, including exhibits to motions that attempted to remove Judge Lunsford from the cases.
In a Dec. 9 letter from Lunsford to the prothonotary’s office (obtained by StateCollege.com through a Right to Know request,) Lunsford explained that the documents in questions had been stricken from the record in court. As such, Lunsford wrote he was not sure how to handle the documents that had been removed as evidence from the case.
“We have not found any authority regarding when a motion to strike is made… what exactly happens to the original exhibit that was not accepted as an appropriate piece of evidence,” Lunsford wrote. “However, I did not feel that when specific exhibits were stricken from the record, that they remained part of the original record.”
In a response two days later, Glantz writes to Lunsford that “striking an exhibit from evidence does not remove it from the public record.” The only time a document is completely removed from the record is through expungement, which Glantz writes is a much more difficult process than striking evidence.
“I have my own concern that each of the documents removed from the files by you involved you personally, specifically alleged interactions between yourself and the District Attorney’s Office and alleged appearance of bias,” Glantz writes. “Your removal of documents making these type of allegations could erode the public’s confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary.”
Glantz also notes that while many of the documents in question were returned to the prothonotary's office, there were doubts that all of them were originals. The prothonotary noted that some of the documents did not have staple holes, even though the prothonotary staples all documents that come through that office.
Glantz says Lunsford is currently under investigation by the Judicial Conduct Board of Pennsylvania for possible judicial misconduct. However, Chief Counsel Robert Gracie of the Judicial Conduct Board says he can neither confirm nor deny the existence of any ongoing investigation due to confidentiality stipulations in the Pennsylvania Code.
Gracie says that anyone can submit a complaint to the board, which may prompt an investigation. If any formal charges of judicial misconduct are filed after an investigation, the charges and subsequent proceedings are public record. However, Gracie also adds that only a very small fraction of investigations lead to formal charges of wrongdoing.
Judge Lunsford declined comment, explaining that judges are not permitted to offer public comment on court proceedings.
The documents in the McClure case that Judge Lunsford reportedly attempted to remove from the prothonotary’s office relate to Cantorna's claim that the judge had an unprofessional relationship with the office of Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller.
Cantorna claims that the judge gave preferential treatment to Parks Miller and her team during the McClure trial, granting unfounded objections and giving the appearance of bias towards the prosecution. He supports these allegations with phone records for Lunsford, Parks Miller and several assistant district attorneys, which Cantorna obtained through a Right to Know request.
According to court filings, the phone records show that Lunsford texted assistant district attorneys Lindsay Foster and Nathan Boob hundreds of time over the several months that the McClure case was working its way through the court. The records also show less frequent phone contact between Lunsford and Parks Miller.
“Trial in this case began on September 8, 2014 and ended on September 11, 2014. Verizon phone records reveal that 152 text messages and 1 media message were sent or received by the court and Assistant District Attorney Lindsay Foster,” one court filing reads. “Of those 152 text messages, 100 texts were sent or received between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. (Many of those at times when the court was on the bench and trial in session.)”
Neither Cantorna's filings nor the phone records speak to the content of these messages. The State College attorney also included photos of Judge Lunsford and Boob together at a bar after a Color Run athletic event, which Cantorna says supports his claim that the judge was too close with the district attorney’s office.
Parks Miller filed a response to Cantorna's allegations on behalf of the commonwealth, arguing that it is Cantorna who engaged in unprofessional behavior by making baseless accusations – not Lunsford or the district attorney’s office.
She writes that judges and attorneys are permitted to have phone contact for any number of reasons or legal matters. She also points out that “there exists no rule of law or ethics that requires any party… to pretend to not know each other in public settings,” responding the photo of Lunsford and Boob which had reportedly been pulled from her Facebook page.
“He has established no evidence to prove bias, prejudice or unfairness,” Parks Miller writes, dismissing Cantorna's allegations of bias as unfounded.
In an unrelated case, a former assistant has accused Parks Miller of forging a court document. Robert Tintner, the attorney representing Parks Miller, issued a statement on Tuesday, saying the allegations "are completely and patently false." The statement says Parks Miller requested that the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General investigate the forgery allegation.
Parks Miller declined comment when contacted for this story. Cantorna also declined comment, but says he plans to appeal the McClure case to the Pennsylvania Superior Court in an attempt to secure a new trial for McClure.
In December, Centre County President Judge Thomas Kistler signed an order that reassigned Judge Lunsford, preventing him from hearing criminal cases with the exception of DUI charges. The order did not specify a reason for Lunsford’s reassignment.
Kistler declined comment, explaining that judges are not permitted to offer public comment on court proceedings.
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