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What is next for Centre County’s first female DA?

Stacy Parks Miller leaves the Centre County District Attorney’s Office very different than when she entered.

For one thing, it’s in a different place.

When she first took office in 2010, Parks Miller walked into small, cramped offices tucked away on the fourth floor of the courthouse, stacked with boxes of files. Today, she sits in a spacious room on the top floor of the county’s Temple Court Building, newly painted in soft blue and cream, looking out over downtown Bellefonte.

The relocation took two years to plan. Her staff has still barely moved in, carrying boxes and diplomas from across the street over recent weeks to take up residence in the new office. Parks Miller only has days left in the space before she cedes it to Bernie Cantorna, the defense attorney who defeated her on both the Democratic and Republican tickets in the primary. Cantorna will be sworn in Friday.

This is the end of her second term in office. She doesn’t pull punches when she talks about the department she inherited.

“It was a mess,” she said, and she doesn’t just mean those stacks of boxes.

She points to things like accelerated rehabilitative disposition agreements and deals she says should never have been made. One of those stands out: the 2005 case against then-Harris Township supervisor Christopher Lee for indecent assault. Lee was admitted to the ARD program in 2006 for his case, which involved touching two boys, aged 8 and 10.

Those were the early days of her predecessor, Michael Madeira. The case was filed during the tumultuous days that should have been the end of longtime DA Ray Gricar’s tenure, but instead came as the office soldiered on after his April 2005 disappearance.

After ARD wiped his record clean, Lee was prosecuted federally in 2014 for new crimes, including child pornography and enticement. He is serving an 18-year prison sentence.

Parks Miller is the first woman to hold the office. She is also the first Democrat to hold the position since it became a full-time office.

She describes herself primarily as a “law and order DA,” and she points toward prosecutions as backup for the label.

There was the Danielle Packer case, where Parks Miller charged third-degree homicide for the driving-and-huffing case that ended the life of Matthew Snyder, 25, in 2012. The state Supreme Court agreed with Parks Miller that, while a DUI might not be intentional harm, huffing computer duster while driving met the “overarching definition of malice” for a murder charge.

“That was a significant change of law,” Parks Miller said.

So was the case against Gary Gephart, who was convicted in 2015 of sex crimes against an intellectually disabled woman.

“It was novel that we got an opinion that because of her IQ, she was unable to consent, and that they have upheld that,” Parks Miller said. “That is so significant. That is why we do this job.”

Sexual cases have been headline-makers lately. Since 2014, the office has prosecuted a number of child sex abuse offenders with massive numbers of counts. While Jerry Sandusky’s case might be remembered as the most high-profile such case handled in the courthouse, the 45 counts in that case were dwarfed by 75 for Austin Ronk, 307 for William Beck, more than 700 for Joseph Neff or the 1,278 for Eric Crader.

Parks Miller said being part of the group behind the Centre County Child Advocacy Center has been instrumental in seeing those cases come together. She also credits an overall attention to the problem of child sex abuse in the wake of the Sandusky scandal, which was prosecuted by the state attorney general’s office.

“It spurred an increasing amount of reporting, an increasing amount of people who were accepting the reporting. People started to realize, ‘Hey, I might be believed,’ ” she said, recalling one case during a jury selection where an older farmer emotionally said he couldn’t serve on a related case because he was raped by an uncle as a child. “There has been a sea change.”

Right now, Parks Miller is probably best known across the state — and arguably, the nation — for one case. It’s the one where the victim smiles at her in the large picture propped up on her new desk. Tim Piazza has become the face of the dangers of hazing since his February death after a fall at a Beta Theta Pi pledge party.

Parks Miller has been vocal in her crusade against the things she said made that happen. She presented the case to a county investigating grand jury, something she called for in 2015 and which produced its first charges in 2017. So far, that has produced criminal charges against the chapter and 26 members, as well as a harsh critique of the fraternity system at Penn State.

Grand juries are something she says made that law-and-order DA thing possible. So were close workings with police departments. In multiple cases, Parks Miller was a face at a police press conference early on, answering questions or deflecting them on things like the disappearance of Jennifer Cahill Shadle or the dumping of Corinne Pena’s body in Ferguson Township.

It is impossible to look at Parks Miller’s tenure, or at least her second term, without noting controversies. They happened.

There were allegations of texting and other ex parte communications with judges, and accusations that she forged the signature of Judge Pamela Ruest — now the president judge — on a fake bail order as part of a murder-for-hire investigation. The state AG and a grand jury looked into the forgery issue and decided the signature was real.

The ex parte issue is still being addressed. Judge Jonathan Grine accepted a letter of counsel from the Judicial Conduct Board for his part. Parks Miller had a disciplinary hearing scheduled for November. That was rescheduled by joint motion to Dec. 11, but has been continued again without an end date set.

There were lawsuits, some filed by Parks Miller against a host of people including county officials, Ruest and Cantorna, and some filed against her in return. She and attorney Bruce Castor have maintained for two years that all of the uproar is politically motivated, with Castor even raising that argument to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I’ve never been a political DA,” Parks Miller said. “Maybe I should have been.”

She has been passionate, though, and offers no apologies or denials for that.

Parks Miller has called out issues she believed were problems with cases both in court and out. Sometimes those came in front of the courthouse, like when she took issue with District Judge Allen Sinclair’s dismissal of some of the charges against Beta Theta Pi defendants.

She and Sinclair clashed before on an ethnic intimidation case where, similarly, she refiled dismissed charges and sought a new district judge to hear the preliminary hearing. He isn’t the only judge she’s gone toe-to-toe with, even being directed out of the courtroom by District Judge Tom Jordan when she got into a heated debate with District Judge Steven Lachman over bail.

Every time an issue rose, she said she had the county’s best interest in mind and she doesn’t think she would have done much differently.

“Should I have gone along to get along?” Parks Miller asked. “No .... I still believe the county has a lot of problems and issues.”

Up next is private practice, time with family and an issue close to her heart: animals. Parks Miller has aggressively prosecuted animal-related cases, including the 2016 death of Rockview state prison’s Totti.

“I plan to use this new chapter in my life to keep helping people who need someone to champion their cause,” she said. “People can be victimized in all kinds of ways and I always root for the underdog. Many people need a strong legal advocate and I hope to make a difference in their lives in my private practice.”

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce

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