Last week the Centre Daily Times ran an article on the 26 year tenure of First Assistant District Attorney Mark Smith.1 He currently serves as First Assistant District Attorney under current Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller, herself a former First Assistant District Attorney in Clearfield County; she is a registered Democrat and was elected as a Democrat. He also served in the same position under former District Attorneys Michael T. Madeira and Ray Gricar, both Republicans. When Mr. Gricar disappeared, Mr. Smith also served as acting District Attorney, when Mr. Gricar vanished.
I’ve commented on Mr. Smith’s role as acting DA before. In terms of what he did of what he did in the investigation, I have no criticism.2 Until about three weeks prior to the end of his tenure, the police were actively, and publicly, investigating leads. It was not a cold case. His role was supportive, and it included the meeting of District Attorneys from other counties with the Bellefonte Police. He didn’t suggest it, but he endorsed it and contacted the Bellefonte Police for their approval.3 Compare that to his successor’s involvement with other district attorneys, e.g. Montour County District Attorney Robert W. Buehner, Jr. and former Clinton County District Attorney Ted McKnight .
Really, under the bulk of his eight and a half month tenure, there wasn’t too much he could do. There were two things that a district attorney could do, ask the Commonwealth Attorney General’s Office to take the case or ask a judge to empanel a grand jury. For the first, the only two reasons statute permits this, a conflict of interest or if the office lacked the resources to pursue the case. They was never a legitimate conflict of interest and it becomes impossible to say that there were inadequate resources as the police were still analyzing evidence until early December 2005. A grand jury is an investigative tool that could have useful in getting information from witnesses, but as noted, the police were still analyzing physical evidence. 4
There is more to this than just the investigation into Mr. Gricar’s disappearance. The disappearance itself was totally unprecedented. I’m sure that there were cases where an incumbent district attorney in Pennsylvania died or resigned unexpectedly. Statute provides for a successor to be appointed by the local court, with the first assistant serving until this was done. Legally, Mr. Gricar neither resigned nor died, but was missing. The statute was not triggered.
Mr. Smith knew, from 4/19/05 that Mr. Gricar could show up at any time. Mr. Gricar would then be the District Attorney. Conversely, Mr. Gricar’s remains could be found at any time, triggering the statute, and giving the court the power to replace Mr. Smith. Any longer term planning could be easily rendered useless.5
Mr. Smith, who chose not to run for District Attorney, could not even talk to his likely successor, because there was no likely successor. On 4/19/05, there were three strong candidates that could have been the next District Attorney, Karen Arnold, Robert Bascom, and the eventual winner, Mr. Madeira. About a month after that, Mr. Bascom was eliminated. It would not have been possible until after the November election that Mr. Smith to coordinate activities with his actual successor.6 As can be seen in the
Also on 4/19/05, Mr. Smith was suddenly found his job duties dramatically changed. He had his normal job duties as first assistant, plus those of the actual district attorney. There were further problems. One veteran assistant district attorney, Steve Sloane, was on medical leave on 4/19/05 and would be for several weeks. So Mr. Smith was facing a notable manpower problem. There was even more. The police had to look at Mr. Gricar’s official actions, his case records and at the any accounts in the office. That was more of a strain on the limited resources of the office.
What did Mr. Smith say about tenure as acting district attorney afterward? “It was a neat time, it really was.”1 That is the only thing that I will take issue with in regard to Mr. Smith. It was a potential for an administrative disaster, that only through his good management, was avoided. Mr. Smith, though not unsung, is one of the heroes of the Gricar case, and of the Centre County District Attorney’s Office.
5 A very good example of this type of thing can be seen in the DC photographer Michael Felletter, who was acquitted in 2009 in the Centre County Courts. Mr. Madeira appealed the acquittal, but Ms. Parks Miller withdrew the appeal.
E-mail J. J. in Phila at firstname.lastname@example.org