Should state po­lice be ex­empt from tes­ti­fy­ing?

In fight over po­lice-in­volved shoot­ings, me­dia join DA to seek open tes­i­mony.

The Hazleton Standard-Speaker - - FRONT PAGE - BY RI­LEY YATES THE MORN­ING CALL (TNS)

Penn­syl­va­nia state po­lice say the pub­lic should be ex­cluded from an up­com­ing court hear­ing in which the agency is seek­ing to sup­press a grand jury re­port on how it in­ves­ti­gates troop­ers who fa­tally shoot sus­pects.

A coali­tion of me­dia com­pa­nies dis­agrees.

On Tues­day, The Morn­ing Call and two other me­dia groups sought to in­ter­vene in a le­gal bat­tle be­tween state po­lice and Northamp­ton County District At­tor­ney John Mor­gan el li, whose grand jury is pre­par­ing a re­port ex­pected to be crit­i­cal of the agency’ s long time prac­tice of in­ves­ti­gat­ing its own when a trooper uses deadly force in the line of duty.

Th emo­tions by The Morn­ing Call, The As­so­ci­ated Press and PA Me­dia Group of cen­tral Penn­syl­va­nia say the pub­lic has a con­sti­tu­tional right to open court pro­ceed­ings. The fil­ings came three days be­fore a hear­ing Fri­day on state po­lice’s bid to shut down the g rand jury, which Pres­i­dent Judge Stephen Baratta has sched­uled in his rob­ing room, out­side the pub­lic eye.

Morg anelli and state po­lice have been at log­ger­heads since May, when troop­ers fa­tally shot a sui­ci­dal Lower Mount Bethel Town­ship man, but would not re­lin­quish their probe to a de­tec­tive from Mor­ganelli’s of­fice. Mor­ganelli has been vo­cally crit­i­cal of that pol­icy, which he says risks pub­lic con­fi­dence at a time of na­tional scru­tiny of shoot­ings in­volv­ing po­lice of­fi­cers.

In Septem­ber, Mor­ganelli cleared the two troop­ers in­volved, Eddie Pa­gan and Jay Splain, an­nounc­ing they were jus­ti­fied in shoot­ing 47-year-old An­thony Paul Ardo. But Mor­ganelli said the same g rand jury that reached that con­clu­sion would is­sue a se­cond re­port con­tain­ing rec­om­mend ati on son whether it was ap­pro­pri­ate for state po­lice to seek to keep their in­ves­ti­ga­tion in-house.

It is that se­cond re­port state po­lice hope will never see the light of day. The agency is ask­ing Baratta to pre­vent the pub­lic fil­ing of the

re­port, or to dis­band the grand jury al­to­gether, ar­gu­ing it is over­step­ping its bounds.

Tues­day’s fil­ings by the me­dia groups do not weigh in on that larger is­sue, but in­sist that ar­gu­ments in the case must be held in pub­lic. The groups’ at­tor­ney, Craig Stau­den­maier, cites the state constitution, which pro­vides that “All courts shall be open,” and says state po­lice fail to make a con­vinc­ing ar­gu­ment against ac­cess in such “a mat­ter of sig­nif­i­cant pub­lic con­cern.”

“Fur­ther­more, pub­lic con­fi­dence in the process and find­ings of the grand jury, par­tic­u­larly in­volv­ing an event like this, will be ex­tremely un­der­mined and will raise pub­lic con­cern and per­haps out­rage that such pro­ceed­ings are shielded from pub­lic view,” Stau­den­maier wrote.

Mor­ganelli has asked for a pub­lic hear­ing on the state po­lice mo­tion, say­ing it is in the pub­lic in­ter­est. Ar­gu­ments on Mor­ganelli’s re­quest are also sched­uled to be heard Fri­day by Baratta, and those are slated to be done in pub­lic, ac­cord­ing to the me­dia groups’ fil­ings and Mor­ganelli.

State po­lice say the g rand jury’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion should have ended with the de­ci­sion to clear the two troop­ers of wrong­do­ing in Ardo’s death.

By seek­ing to is­sue the se­cond re­port, state po­lice say, the grand jury is im­prop­erly stray­ing from its mis­sion of in­ves­ti­gat­ing crimes within Northamp­ton County.

In a fil­ing last month, the agency war ned of a “po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous prece­dent” if district at­tor­neys are per­mit­ted to use grand ju­ries “merely to pur­sue their own pol­icy in­ter­ests.”

State po­lice op­pose hold­ing ar­gu­ments in open court, say­ing it would jeop­ar­dize the se­crecy of grand jury pro­ceed­ings and delve into “non-crim­i­nal mat­ters” that “may not ever war­rant pub­lic dis­clo­sure.” The agency notes that its com­mis­sioner, Tyree Blocker, ap­peared be­fore the panel in Septem­ber, and says the sub­stance of his tes­ti­mony shouldn’t be aired pub­licly.

Tues­day’s fil­ings by the me­dia groups main­tain that state po­lice are over­stat­ing the reach of grand jury se­crecy. Wit­nesses called be­fore a grand jury are free to dis­cuss their tes­ti­mony in pub­lic, the fil­ings said, un­less specif­i­cally pro­hib­ited from do­ing so by the su­per­vis­ing judge.

There is “no blan­ket veil on se­crecy as ar­gued by the state po­lice,” the me­dia groups said.

The clash be­tween Mor­ganelli and state po­lice erupted af­ter Ardo’s May 20 shoot­ing, when Morg anelli said he wanted an in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion led by county de­tec­tives, only to be told by state po­lice they were keep­ing it in­house.

Mor­ganelli points to best prac­tices en­dorsed last year by the Penn­syl­va­nia District At­tor­neys As­so­ci­a­tion for how po­lice-in­volved shoot­ings should be han­dled.

The guide­lines said an in­de­pen­dent agency should con­duct the probes, though the lo­cal depart­ment may play a role “in sup­port­ing or co­or­di­nat­ing” the ef­fort.

State po­lice have de­fended their ap­proach, say­ing they have a breadth of re­sources and strict pro­to­cols to en­sure the in­ves­ti­ga­tions are done thor­oughly, trans­par­ently and fairly.

The agency “feels strongly that the depart­ment has the nec­es­sary re­sources in place to con­duct un­bi­ased, in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tions at all times, to in­clude crit­i­cal in­ci­dents such as trooper-in­volved shoot­ings,” state po­lice spokesman Ryan Tarkowski said in a pre­pared state­ment last month.

“More­over, the lo­cal district at­tor­ney’s in­volve­ment, as­sis­tance and role as fi­nal de­ci­sion maker en­sures the in­tegrity of the process.”

TiMES-ShAMROcK FilE

The Nor thamp­ton County district at­tor­ney is fight­ing to re­move the “veil of se­crecy” that al­lows state po­lice — shown here with Nan­ti­coke po­lice in Oc­to­ber — to not tes­tify be­fore grand ju­ries.

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