Attorney may face charges after introducing drug evidence

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A Pittsburgh defense attorney could be facing criminal charges after she introduced potential drug evidence -- a box containing a straw with suspected heroin residue -- at a court hearing on Thursday.

Wendy L. Williams was instructed by Common Pleas Judge Donald E. Machen to get an attorney as Allegheny County sheriff's deputies are now investigating the incident.

Neither Ms. Williams nor the attorney said to be representing her could be reached.

According to sheriff's Lt. Leo O'Neill, Ms. Williams was questioning a witness during a suppression hearing in a drug case against Dave Clemons, 31, of Mount Oliver. Suppression hearings are typically held in advance of a criminal trial in an attempt by defense attorneys to exclude evidence from a trial.

The witness was Clemons' wife, Alexandra, who was present during a parole compliance check of Clemons at their home on Aug. 30, 2012.

During the check, officers found a gun, ammunition and two bundles of heroin labeled "Ferrari" in purple ink, along with several empty stamp bags.

According to the criminal complaint, Alexandra Clemons yelled to officers conducting the search, "Those empty stamp bags are mine."

She was charged by summons, but Dave Clemons was taken into custody and charged with possession of a firearm, possession of drug paraphernalia and possession with intent to deliver.

During the suppression hearing before Judge Machen, Ms. Williams handed Alexandra Clemons a small wooden box.

"She opens it up and says, 'Yes, this is the box I use to store my heroin,' " Lt. O'Neill recounted. " 'In fact, this is the straw I use to snort my heroin.' At that point, everything came to a grinding halt."

Defense attorneys are not permitted to introduce illegal items as evidence in court. Typically, if contraband is going to be shown to a witness, it has been tested by a crime lab and secured by police.

"Defense attorneys are not police officers," said Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and law professor. "Contraband like that is not supposed to be something any private party should handle in a circumstance like that."

Lt. O'Neill agreed.

"It's very unusual for a defense attorney to bring drug evidence into the courthouse," he said. "We feel she should not have had it in the first place. It should not have been brought into the courthouse."

The sheriff's office seized the 6-inch-by-6-inch wooden box with brass hinges, as well as the cut-off straw found inside it, which appeared to have white drug residue on it. They will be submitted to the crime lab for testing.

Mr. Antkowiak said that it's possible Ms. Williams thought it was just a box she was showing the witness.

"If you think the evidence is pertinent, it's entirely proper for the attorney to present it," he said.

"It seems they weren't aware there was a piece of paraphernalia in the box. If there wasn't a knowing possession on the part of the attorney, then there's no criminality."

But that doesn't mean the sheriff's office shouldn't investigate, Mr. Antkowiak continued. "If there is contraband being brought into the courtroom by someone who is not a law enforcement officer, there's legitimate concern."

Lt. O'Neill said the incident set off "all sorts of red flags," for his office.

"What if it was a brick of heroin?" he asked. "Would you use the same tact? What if they missed a gun?"

The police department, he said, contends that the straw was not inside the box when they searched the Clemons' home.

"It's very irregular at the least," Lt. O'Neill said. "I've never seen it or heard of it happening before."

Paula Reed Ward:, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard.

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