2012-02-16 / Local & State

Attorneys Question Pa. Conviction

EASTON, Pa. (AP) – Defense attorneys are questioning an eastern Pennsylvania judge's decision to convict a woman on a lesser charge after she had been acquitted by a jury in a drunken driving case.

Northampton County Judge Michael Koury convicted 25-year-old Jessica Trump last week of the lesser DUI count shortly after a jury cleared her on a second-offense drunken driving charge.

Trump testified that she wasn’t the driver of the car spotted double-parked by police in Freemansburg in July. Trump and other witnesses said she had gotten in the driver's seat to retrieve some bags when the designated driver for the evening was unlocking the house. But the judge said he didn’t believe their story. Trump is to be sentenced March 30.

Gary Asteak of Easton, former president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, called the decision “shocking” and told The (Allentown) Morning Call that he believes the conviction will be overturned on appeal. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Asteak said of reading about the decision.

John Waldron, a former prosecutor turned defense attorney, said surprise was also his reaction, since judges usually defer to decisions by juries in deciding lesser charges.

“Twelve people heard the witnesses, 12 people deliberated and 12 people came back unanimously and made the call,” Waldron said. “In my experience, judges usually follow what the jury did.”

Koury convicted Trump of a general-impairment DUI charge, a minor misdemeanor. Under the law, those accused of offenses punishable by a maximum of six months in prison are not entitled to a jury. Koury said the charge fell under that provision since it can bring five days to six months in prison, and a suspended license of a year.

Koury declined comment to the paper Thursday, saying the judicial code barred him from talking about a pending case.

Juror Richard Chilcoat Sr. of Lehigh Township said the panel felt prosecutors had failed to prove that Trump was the driver. But he said he didn't feel that the judge overruled the jury in his decision. “I just think he felt that with the other charge, he had some leverage to do something,” Chilcoat said.

Prosecutors said it was their job to seek a conviction and the judge’s decision was correct despite the jury’s acquittal. “Could the judge have found her not guilty because of the jury’s finding?” asked District Attorney John Morganelli. “Sure, he could have, but the judge has the right to rule on those cases.”

Defense attorney Jason Jenkins has vowed to appeal. He said he would argue to the Superior Court that the judge shouldn’t have decided the lesser charge, and that he afterward erred in finding her guilty.

“Somehow 12 of her peers can vindicate her, which should be a happy moment, and instead it turned into a nightmare for her,” Jenkins said. “There are times when you're a lawyer and you think to yourself, ‘Man, there is just no justice.”’

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