Washington County lawyers say trial records were altered

Deletions alleged in transcripts from high-profile murder case

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Two Washington County defense attorneys are claiming transcripts from a murder trial two years ago have been altered, with intemperate comments the judge made removed and defense motions deleted or moved.

The county's former chief prosecutor is calling the allegations politically motivated and "fallacious." But both lawyers have raised the issue in connection with appeals of their clients' convictions in the killing of a retired Carroll police chief and his wife. One unsuccessfully petitioned the state Superior Court this week to order the release of an audio tape of the trial of three men charged in the case; the other raised the issue in his petition to overturn the sentence of his client.

At issue is whether President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca improperly interfered with the duties of her court reporter -- also referred to as a stenographer -- and whether she or any member of her staff tampered with transcripts of the high-profile murder trial and related sentencing hearings in her court for Gerald Szakal, 28, of Rostraver, Justin J. Welch, 24, of Charleroi, and Tecko D. Tartt, also 24, of Donora.

During the October 2009 jury trial, Mr. Szakal was found guilty of two counts of second-degree murder, robbery, theft and other crimes related to the March 4, 2008, shooting deaths of Howard and Nancy Springer.

Calling his actions "senseless, brutal and heinous," Judge O'Dell Seneca sentenced Mr. Szakal to two life terms, plus an additional 20 to 40 years, in prison.

His two co-defendants pleaded guilty to their roles in the robbery and conspiracy that led to the murders and testified against Mr. Szakal.

Mr. Szakal was accused of murdering the Springers to keep his mother from finding out that he stole jewelry and coins from her house to support a drug habit. He had sold some of the items to the couple, who operated a precious metals business out of their home.

Judge O'Dell Seneca last week declined to comment about the transcripts, citing canons in the state judicial conduct code that advise judges to abstain from public comment about pending proceedings.

Though defense lawyers have since declined to comment publicly about the cases since the end of the sentencings, they weren't as reticent in petitions with state Superior Court.

In a brief filed with the court in January, Mr. Szakal's lawyer, Noah Geary, said he wants to appeal his client's conviction, but cannot do so "because the trial transcript has been tampered with substantially, materially and in numerous respects."

"Specifically ... timely objections made at trial and motions for mistrials ... have been deleted from the transcript altogether and in some instances, removed and placed later in the proceeding than when the motions were actually made," he wrote.

On Wednesday, Mr. Geary asked the court to order Judge O'Dell Seneca's court reporter, Toni Dinardo, to produce the original, unedited audio recording of the trial and to extend his Friday deadline to file an appeal. The court denied his request the next day, but told Mr. Geary he could raise the tampering issue in his appeal.

Mr. Geary claimed in his petition that Ms. Dinardo told him she could not hand over audio tapes of the weeklong trial because she was "not permitted" to do so by Judge O'Dell Seneca.

"Such interference by the trial judge" in his efforts to obtain a copy of the audio of the trial is "improper," he wrote.

In a discussion with Mr. Welch's lawyer, Joseph Francis, Mr. Geary said he learned of apparent changes to transcripts from sentencing hearings for Mr. Welch. Mr. Welch had three sentencing hearings before Judge O'Dell Seneca.

Mr. Francis described what had happened in his appeal of Mr. Welch's sentence filed last year in Superior Court.

At the Oct. 27, 2009, sentencing hearing for Mr. Welch, lawyers in the courtroom realized that Judge O'Dell Seneca was about to sentence Mr. Welch twice for the same conspiracy. When an assistant district attorney stood and attempted to clarify the matter, the judge "responded by telling the assistant district attorney to sit down and cease speaking," Mr. Francis wrote.

Two days later, the judge made the same mistake in re-sentencing Mr. Welch. After that hearing, Mr. Francis said the judge chastised him in her chambers for speaking to the media about her mistakes. She corrected the error in a third sentencing hearing Nov. 25, 2009.

In his appeal, Mr. Francis told the court that the original transcript from his client's Oct. 27, 2009, sentencing hearing omitted several details, including the judge's "sit down" order to the assistant district attorney.

Mr. Francis said that nine days after he notified Ms. Dinardo about the omissions, he received an amended transcript that included some of the missing statements, though it also excluded several details.

Mr. Francis asked the Superior Court to overturn Mr. Welch's sentence of 20 to 40 years in prison as excessive, maintaining that the sentence should have been shorter because he cooperated with the prosecution against Mr. Szakal. The court denied his appeal in a decision handed down Thursday.

Along with appeals to Superior Court, the lawyers could initiate proceedings concerning Judge O'Dell Seneca with the state Judicial Conduct Board, which investigates allegations of wrongdoing by lawyers and members of the judiciary. It is not known whether they have done so because those proceedings do not become public until and unless charges are filed. The Judicial Conduct Board then serves as the prosecutor before the Court of Judicial Discipline. Judge O'Dell Seneca formerly served as president judge on the Court of Judicial Discipline.

Though lawyers sometimes challenge the accuracy of statements in court transcripts, it's unusual for a judge or any staff member to be accused of tampering with a transcript -- which would be a crime -- said longtime Duquesne University School of Law professor and author Bruce Ledewitz.

"It's a very serious allegation," Mr. Ledewitz said. "It's hard to image a more serious allegation."

It wouldn't be simple to alter a transcript, he said.

"That would require collusion between the court reporter and the judge and that's highly unlikely," Mr. Ledewitz said. "It would require a high degree of coordination."

Herman Bigi, a former Washington County district attorney and Springer family lawyer, said he's known Judge O'Dell Seneca her entire life, including when she was his chief of litigation in the district attorney's office from 1980 to 1984.

He doesn't believe she would tamper with a transcript or allow her staff to do so. "She's been nothing but honorable," he said. "And she has an honorable reputation."

Judge O'Dell Seneca was elected to the Common Pleas Court in 1991 and rose to president judge in 2004. She won a 10-year retention vote in 2001 and faces another retention vote in this year's general election.

Mr. Bigi said he believes the accusations against her are politically motivated.

"They're after her politically because she's on [the ballot] this year," he said of Mr. Geary and Mr. Francis. "She's a hard-nosed judge and she offends some attorneys, but it's not personal."

Ms. Dinardo couldn't be reached for comment because she is on maternity leave, but a former co-worker and owner of a local court reporting business also said it would be difficult to alter a transcript without a court reporter's knowledge because security keys and special software are used in the recording and transcribing equipment.

Though laws governing court reporters vary from state to state, and sometimes even differ by county, court reporters working in the judicial system in Pennsylvania have to meet certain qualifications, such as the ability to decipher up to four voices at once and to type 225 words per minute with an accuracy rate of at least 95 percent.

Michelle Hall of Pittsburgh Reporting Service said court reporters translate data verbatim from their shorthand notes or transcribing machines and later add punctuation marks.

After the transcription is complete, but before the record is certified, a court reporter will typically forward the transcript to lawyers from each side, who have several days to object to any of the content. If no one objects, the record is then certified by the court reporter and lodged with the Clerk of Courts or Prothonotary's office.

If someone does object, as Mr. Francis did with the October 2009 sentencing transcript, the court reporter can rely on notes and audio recordings to clarify issues.

Statements should never be omitted from the record, Ms. Hall said, even if a judge issues an order to "strike" testimony.

As impartial officers of the court, it's essential for court reporters to be accurate and honest, she said.

"It's extremely important," Ms. Hall said. "If we were not verbatim, people could change anything in the transcript."

Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com .


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