Gun charges thrown out after judge accuses assistant DA of misconduct
March 21, 2017 12:00 AM
Judge Donna Jo McDaniel
By Paula Reed Ward / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
An Allegheny County judge who banned a prosecutor from her courtroom after calling him “sneaky,” leading him to fall from favor in the district attorney’s office, on Monday threw out the criminal case that sparked her ire.
After he was accused of prosecutorial misconduct by Common Pleas Judge Donna Jo McDaniel, assistant district attorney Lawrence Sachs, a 30-year veteran in the office, was demoted from the narcotics unit to become an area prosecutor serving the Mon Valley.
On Monday, a different ADA was in Judge McDaniel’s courtroom trying to argue why the gun charges against James Taric Byrd ought to go on.
He was unsuccessful. Judge McDaniel, who previously said she was declaring a mistrial out of “manifest necessity” but would leave the charges open to be retried, dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning that the charges against Byrd cannot be refiled, and the case against Byrd is over.
A spokesman for the DA’s office would not comment on the demotion of Mr. Sachs but said attorneys with the office would review Monday’s court transcript before deciding if they would appeal.
Byrd is charged stemming from his arrest Feb. 23, 2015, in McKeesport on charges related to drug and firearms possession, as well as stalking and terroristic threats. The gun charges were severed from the rest, and went to trial in late November. Byrd faces separate rape charges, and that case is on appeal to the state Superior Court after Judge McDaniel suppressed evidence in the case.
The situation leading to the mistrial began Nov. 30 when Mr. Sachs contacted a woman Byrd, who was representing himself at trial, intended to call as a character witness.
In trials, it is common for prosecutors to gather information about witnesses appearing to testify. But in this case, because Byrd was representing himself, Mr. Sachs contacted the witness directly.
Mr. Sachs called Brandi Wilson late that afternoon, he told Judge McDaniel at a Dec. 1 hearing held to examine the prosecutor’s behavior.
The two sides portrayed the conversation differently.
Mr. Sachs said he asked Ms. Wilson if she was aware of Byrd’s prior convictions and whether those would change her opinion of his reputation, and he said he wanted to find out if Ms. Wilson was going to appear for court.
He told Judge McDaniel at that hearing: “She said that she couldn’t get off work, and she couldn’t afford to lose her job.” He denied ever intending to intimidate Ms. Wilson or stop her from testifying.
But at 1 a.m. — about eight hours after that phone call — Ms. Wilson left a lengthy message for Judge McDaniel in which she described Mr. Sachs as threatening and said she was afraid of him and possible retaliation.
Ms. Wilson told the court, “He proceeded to basically scare me to the point where I do not want to participate in this trial. He advised me that he feels — that he feels that Mr. Byrd is the most dangerous man that he has ever met or ever seen.”
“I advised him that I only knew Mr. Byrd for a few months before he got re-incarcerated,” she continued. “He cut me off and was like, ‘yeah, I know a lot about you’ ... which really freaks me out because that means I’m being watched at this point just for being in contact with Mr. Byrd.”
Ms. Wilson didn’t know that the DA’s office had been listening to Byrd’s recorded phone calls from the jail, which is how Mr. Sachs learned the information about her.
Judge McDaniel declared a mistrial, saying that it was the perception of Ms. Wilson that the DA’s office was corrupt that mattered.
“For manifest necessity I am going to declare a mistrial in this case. I have been on the bench for 31 years. In that 31 years I have never once banned anyone from my courtroom ... However, Mr. Sachs, you are banned from my courtroom. I can no longer trust you. I find you to be sneaky.”
She told Byrd she would set a new trial date, but the following Monday she reversed herself and threw Byrd’s gun charges out entirely “because of prosecutorial misconduct.”
Afterward prosecutors learned that Byrd spoke with Ms. Wilson from jail the evening after her conversation with Mr. Sachs. They were recorded by the jail and sent to Ted Dutkowski, the prosecutor who replaced Mr. Sachs.
In those calls, Ms. Wilson told Byrd about her conversation that day with Mr. Sachs and told him she told the prosecutor she wouldn’t be in court the next day because of work.
Byrd kept interrupting her. “No, no, no. I’m saying — let me let you know. Let me be in control of the conversations for this time right here. You’re coming to the thing, and I know that he scared you, Brandi. I know that he spooked you with that [expletive.]”
“That’s not why, though,” Ms. Wilson responded.
“If you just listen to me, you read between the lines and understand,” Byrd said. “If you let these people know — if you even called the lady back that called you and tell them that he called you and said all those derogatory things and he threatened you and he scared you and that’s why you’re not coming, it helps me. Are you not ...”
“Yeah, I know,” she responded.
“So why would you say it’s because you can’t come to work?” Byrd continued.
At the hearing on Monday, Mr. Dutkowski tried to show that it was Byrd’s phone calls that encouraged Ms. Wilson to contact the court about the situation, not any threats by Mr. Sachs.
Ms. Wilson testified briefly — questioned first by Judge McDaniel — saying that after she spoke to Mr. Sachs she was “nervous” and “scared.”
“Taric said to put it on the record for my safety,” she said.
“If you had any backlash, it would not have been from Mr. Byrd but from Mr. Sachs?” Judge McDaniel asked.
“Mr. Sachs,” Ms. Wilson responded.
Under questioning by Mr. Dutkowski, Ms. Wilson said she considered Mr. Sachs’ comments to be “indirect” threats, and she contacted the judge’s chambers out of fear for the safety of her and her children.