Deputy district attorney denies he reneged on deal with defense attorney in hit-and-run

Says he didn't promise attorney his client wouldn't be arrested

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An argument over whether a veteran defense attorney had an agreement with the chief homicide prosecutor on a fatal hit-and-run case erupted into a courtroom showdown, with the judge saying Friday that he didn't believe the prosecutor's version of events.

Patrick Thomassey accused deputy district attorney Mark V. Tranquilli -- currently on leave to run for Common Pleas Court judge -- of reneging on an agreement to have his client turn himself in and provide a statement to police. In exchange, he said the prosecutor promised that the young man would not be physically arrested and processed through the Allegheny County Jail.

The contents of that statement to police were the subject of a suppression hearing Thursday before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David R. Cashman.

According to Mr. Thomassey, he was contacted on April 1, 2011, by the family of Seth Denne, then 21, about an incident at 2:45 a.m. that day.

Police said Bruce Babyak, 27, of Versailles was struck and killed in the middle of Eden Park Boulevard in McKeesport that morning by a van, which failed to stop.

After hearing from Mr. Denne what had happened, Mr. Thomassey called Mr. Tranquilli and said his client was willing to cooperate and give a statement to investigators as long as he was not physically arrested and jailed.

Both attorneys testified that cases of homicide by vehicle often proceed that way, and that such an agreement would be acceptable.

But, according to Mr. Thomassey, Mr. Tranquilli didn't follow through.

Instead, after an investigator arrived at Mr. Thomassey's office and Mr. Denne made his statement, the detective told the lawyer his client would have to be arrested, taken into custody and processed at the jail.

Mr. Denne was arrested and remained in the jail for five days.

"I was embarrassed professionally," Mr. Thomassey told Judge Cashman. "I would never have let him give a statement if I knew that that agreement would not have been honored."

Mr. Thomassey said in his 38 years of practice, something like this never had happened to him.

"He lied to me. That's what happened," he testified. "And there is no mistake here, there is no misunderstanding, period."

During her cross-examination of Mr. Thomassey, assistant district attorney Lisa Pellegrini accused him of having personal animosity toward Mr. Tranquilli, which the witness denied.

"He promised me he would not be taken out of my office in handcuffs," Mr. Thomassey said.

But Mr. Tranquilli testified he never made any promise to the defense. Further, he said Mr. Denne had already made his statement to the police before the prosecutor spoke with Mr. Thomassey at 1:30 p.m. that day.

"All I told him was that ... the charging of the defendant could be handled just like we handle any other HBV case," he said. "I never promised anything. There was no quid pro quo, nothing of the sort."

It wasn't until late that afternoon, as he was preparing to leave for the day, that Mr. Tranquilli received a call from county homicide Lt. Andrew Schurman, telling him that because of the media attention on the case, supervisors in the department wanted Mr. Denne to be arrested.

"I explained to Lt. Schurman that I didn't really see what the big deal was, but that they didn't work for me, and I said, 'Well, I guess you guys are going to do what you're going to do,' and that was the end of that conversation.

"[T]hat's precisely why I am positive there was no agreement, because if there had been an agreement between myself and Pat Thomassey, I would not have allowed Lt. Schurman to get off the phone, and Mr. Denne would not have been arrested."

Mr. Tranquilli testified that he didn't speak with Mr. Thomassey again about the issue until days later in a courthouse hallway.

The defense attorney said that, also, was not true.

Instead, Mr. Thomassey said he called Mr. Tranquilli immediately when the detective told him he was arresting Mr. Denne.

"I said, 'What is wrong with you? You gave me your word that this would not happen,' " Mr. Thomassey testified. "And he said, 'I can't control the county police.' And I said, 'You're the head of homicide in the City of Pittsburgh ... and you're telling me that you can't tell the county police when to make an arrest in a homicide by vehicle? If that's true, your office has reached the epitome of incompetence."

Mr. Thomassey said Mr. Tranquilli's entire version of events was wrong.

"When I talked to Mark Tranquilli, my client had not met with anybody but me. He had not spoken to any policeman. I was not going to permit him to speak to a policeman until I had it clear what my arrangement and agreement with the district attorney's office was, period.

"I was guaranteed by Mr. Tranquilli that he would not be arrested."

Judge Cashman pointed out during argument that although Mr. Tranquilli testified that the original phone call was at 1:30 p.m., Mr. Denne didn't sign the Miranda rights form waiving his right to remain silent until 1:40 p.m.

The defense told Judge Cashman that without Mr. Denne's statement to police, investigators had no evidence as to who was involved in the hit-and-run.

But Ms. Pellegrini, the interim head of the homicide unit while Mr. Tranquilli is on leave, argued that whatever agreement was made, it does not change that Mr. Denne's statement was given voluntarily.

In announcing his ruling Friday, the judge agreed, keeping the statement in the case.

"I do not believe that the promise that was made by Mr. Tranquilli rises to the level that would vitiate" the fact that Mr. Denne's statement was voluntary, Judge Cashman said.

Still, the judge said, "I think it is unquestioned that the conversation that took place between Mr. Thomassey and Mr. Tranquilli occurred in the manner which Mr. Thomassey related."

He concluded his ruling by saying of Mr. Tranquilli, "I hope he doesn't pull that stunt again."

Reached later in the day Friday, Mr. Tranquilli said, "With all due respect to Judge Cashman, he was not party to the conversation. I know what was said and what was not. My recollection is accurate."

"If I had given my word he was not to be arrested, he would not have been arrested," Mr. Tranquilli said.

Mr. Thomassey plans to file an appeal on the issue.

Mike Manko, a spokesman for the DA's office, said that going into the hearing, the prosecution felt the motion to suppress had no merit.

"With respect to the arrest, the county police were acting within the rules of criminal procedure," Mr. Manko said. "As to whether or not there was an agreement in place regarding how the arrest would take place, that is something that we intend to review."

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Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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