Allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and improper communications between members of the Centre County judiciary and District Attorney’s Office were made Friday in proceedings in the case of a Maryland man facing rape, burglary and other charges.
Attorney Sean McGraw made a motion before Senior Judge J. Michael Williamson, asking the court to dismiss charges against his client, Justin Blake, because Blake’s constitutional due process rights were violated, in part due to cell phone contact between District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller, Assistant District Attorney Nathan Boob, Judge Bradley P. Lunsford and District Judge Kelley Gillette-Walker, according to court documents.
Williamson denied the motion to dismiss those charges.
Blake, 21, of Newburg, Md., was charged with burglary, criminal trespass and indecent assault stemming from an incident on State Patty’s Day weekend in 2014. Blake is suspected by State College police of entering a woman’s apartment and indecently assaulting her in her sleep. He was arraigned before District Judge Steven Lachman, who set bail at $30,000, on March 2, 2014, according to court documents.
Additional charges of rape and sexual assault were added at Parks Miller’s request, and bail, which Blake’s family had posted, was raised to $300,000 at a preliminary hearing held before District Judge Kelley Gillette-Walker on March 19, 2014, according to court documents.
McGraw wrote that Gillette-Walker and Parks Miller are “close personal friends” and, citing phone records obtained through Right to Know requests filed with the county, phone calls between the two occurred at 11:50 a.m. and 9:15 p.m. on the day of the hearing. A request for records of text messages between Parks Miller and Gillette-Walker between the time of Blake’s arrest and the hearing is still pending, according to the filing.
The motion also brought up texts between the two prosecutors and Lunsford in the time between the preliminary hearing and a court hearing on July 18, when Blake appeared before Lunsford about lowering bail to the original amount and having the rape and sexual assault charges either dismissed or subject to a new preliminary hearing. Phone records also obtained through Right to Know requests indicate 290 texts were exchanged between Parks Miller and Lunsford and 18 between the judge and Boob over that course of time, according to the motion.
“These messages were exchanged at all hours of the day and throughout all days of the week,” McGraw wrote in the filing.
Such communication presents a “grave appearance of bias” and denied Blake’s right to impartial tribunal, McGraw wrote. He also asked the court to order that Parks Miller, Lunsford and Boob preserve all data on the phones used in the communications and turn them over for analysis and to disqualify Parks Miller and Boob from presenting the commonwealth’s case.
Parks Miller said the mere presence of phone contact between members of her office and judges does not imply misconduct. Contact between prosecutors and Court of Common Pleas and magisterial district judges about warrants, arrests and other legal matters happens not only during regular courthouse hours, but also after hours and on weekends, she said. She and Lunsford were also actively involved in a committee exploring the creation of a juvenile offenders drug court in June and July and some of the text messages listed in McGraw’s motion occurred during those meetings, she added.
Williamson, from Clinton County, ruled on the motion Friday afternoon and denied dismissing the charges, the production of the phones and the motion to disqualify Parks Miller and Boob, but granted reinstating the original bail amount and a new preliminary hearing for the charges.
McGraw said he was “not disappointed” by the ruling. The objective all along was to have the original bail amount reset and either have the charges dismissed or a new preliminary hearing for Blake, he said.
“We’re very pleased with this swift and decisive ruling, which I see as very much in our favor,” McGraw said Friday evening.
This is the second time contact between Lunsford and members of the District Attorney’s Office has been questioned. Attorney Bernard Cantorna made a post-sentence motion in November asking for a new sentencing for his client, Jalene McClure, citing issues of impartiality of the court. McClure was found guilty in a September trial before Lunsford, who sentenced her to 10 years in prison in October.
A Right to Know request filed by Cantorna yielded text messages from Lunsford to and from Parks Miller, Boob and Assistant District Attorney Lindsay Foster — some that appear to have been sent during the trial, according to court documents.
Parks Miller viewed the motion Friday as an effort to dodge a rape charge before it goes to trial, and said it was a “sad day” in Centre County when contact between her office and a judge are used by attorneys in an attempt to skirt serious charges.
“It’s really sad to see people seize on the allegations of the McClure case and exploit them in criminal matters,” she said after the hearing. “It’s everything people hate about lawyers.”
Lunsford declined to comment because the case is ongoing and judges can’t comment on open cases. Gillette-Walker called the allegations “absurd” and declined to comment further for the same reasons.
Cantorna and McGraw were involved in forgery allegations made against Parks Miller in January. During the public comment portion of the Jan. 20 Centre County commissioners meeting, Cantorna presented commissioners with a sworn affidavit from Michelle Shutt, a former paralegal in Parks Miller’s office, that alleged the district attorney forged the name of Judge Pamela Ruest on a court order. McGraw is Shutt’s attorney.
McGraw and Gillette-Walker are former assistant district attorneys who worked in Parks Miller’s office.