Texts deemed not an influence in McClure pretrial conference

While there was texting between former judge Bradley Lunsford and the Centre County District Attorney’s Office during the trial of Jalene McClure, it’s unlikely that the texting affected the trial.

This call Friday by Clinton County Senior Judge J. Michael Williamson clears one of the obstacles in the path of a retrial for McClure. The original 10- to 20-year sentence for McClure, convicted in September 2014 of an August 2010 assault on a 5-month-old child, was vacated in August and sent back to Bellefonte for a new trial.

A month after her sentence in October 2014 was delivered by Lunsford, President Judge Thomas King Kistler removed Lunsford from hearing criminal cases other than DUIs.

Within days of sentencing, McClure’s attorney, Bernard Cantorna, filed an open records request for phone records that showed text messages between Lunsford and members of the District Attorney’s Office, some that were suggested to have been made ex parte communications during trial.

Testimony Friday included statements by Assistant District Attorney Lindsay Foster, whose county-owned cellphone was found to have shared text messages with Lunsford’s county-owned cellphone during the McClure trial in September 2014. Based on the time of day the texts were sent, Cantorna suggested that texts between Foster and Lunsford were sent while court was in session.

Foster testified that she couldn’t recall if the texts were in reference to the trial, but that a majority of them were of a personal matter, stating that an attorney in the District Attorney’s Office had been ill for some time and had recently tendered her resignation. She also claimed that Lunsford took an interest in the personal lives of the attorneys he worked with, suggesting social events Foster and her fiancé could attend.

Foster stated she had never discussed the merits of any case with any judge.

Under cross examination, Foster testified that it was fair to say some texts were made while Lunsford was on the bench, but she was certain she never tried to talk about the case or relay information to the district attorney.

Lunsford was present for part of the hearing Friday, but would not testify. According to his attorney, he is immune from testifying about his duties as a judge or verdicts he has made — a realm held only by the state Supreme Court.

While Williamson said texts between a judge and a member of the District Attorney’s Office raises the appearance of impropriety, there doesn’t seem to be direct evidence that any texting influenced Lunsford’s decision in the case.

“It’s been two years of untruths and I’m really happy to hear the judge today say that he was convinced that (the texts) had nothing to do with the case and we’re moving forward in the trial now,” District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said after the hearing. “This case is about a small child that was almost killed, and it seems we’ve lost focus of that, and I’m glad the judge is pushing it back on track.”

Cantorna declined to comment on ongoing cases, citing that making statements to the press was restricted by Williamson.

A recorded witness deposition is slated for Dec. 19. McClure’s retrial is scheduled for February.

Jeremy Hartley: 814-231-4616, @JJHartleyNews