To the extent that prosecutorial misconduct has begun to reach into public consciousness, its been through stories about the most egregious behavior of the state, the kind that leads to innocent defendants spending decades in prison, being sentenced to death, and even dying. These are cases we have certainly highlighted here at the Open File. But we also try to point out the routineness of prosecutors’ constitutional and ethical violations in cases that receive little or no attention, because they often point to the structural problems that get lost in media coverage of extreme cases.
Take, for instance, what’s currently going on in a robbery prosecution in Washington County, PA. In March of last year, Shayne Coffield and two co-defendants were charged with robbing a pizza delivery man. One of the co-defendants, Chris Pitzarella, took a plea and was sentenced to a maximum of twenty-three months. While in prison, he penned two letters. The first exonerated Coffield. The second recanted the exoneration, saying Coffield had threatened him into writing the first letter.
Pitzarella is the key witness in the Coffield case. Despite this fact, and his knowledge of the letters, the prosecutor, Joseph Zupancic, didn’t see fit to disclose this evidence to the defense until the day of the trial. His excuse? He “forgot.”
Last week, the judge in the case did not buy that explanation. He found Zupancic “knowingly withheld evidence,” he excluded the letters, and he barred Pitzarella from testifying. At the hearing, District Attorney Gene Vittone’s Office all but abandoned the prosecution, saying “barring Pitzarella from testifying [is] the same as dismissing the case.”
A few days later, Zupancic was suspended with pay, and Vittone said “he is ‘looking into’ Zupancic’s continued employment with the district attorney’s office.” Meanwhile, the charges against the third defendant in the case, Michael Stienstraw, were dismissed when the same judge ruled his right to a speedy trial had been violated.
This comes on the heals of the dismissal of an attempted murder charge, also for failure to prosecute within a year. The editorial board of the Observer-Reporter, recently ran a piece entitled, “A ‘Mess’ in the District Attorney’s Office” and wrote, “Vittone has another reason to hope that cases like these come to trial more expeditiously: The voters will be offering their verdict on his tenure when he comes up for re-election a year from now. The way things are going, voters would have every reason to offer a vote of no confidence.”
If there is anything positive to be taken from the situation, it is the fact that the local media, instead of decrying criminals “getting off on technicalities” has turned its attention to the DA’s office, asking why prosecutors can’t manage a simple robbery case without suppressing evidence, getting a witness excluded, and having charges dismissed for excessive delay.
At the hearing on the prosecutor’s conduct in the Coffield case, his attorney said, “Zupancic didn’t give me the letter because he knew it would destroy his case…A continuance is not good enough. This is blatant prosecutorial misconduct.”
Nonetheless, despite prosecutors’ own admission that their case has fallen apart, as of last week, Coffield remained in the county jail, awaiting the District Attorney’s next move.
This stuff happens everyday.