WILKES-BARRE — Before you judge the judge, do you know the law?
As community debate over Wednesday’s acquittal of hit-and-run defendant Megan Panowicz continues to fill newspaper comment boards, two experienced local attorneys suggested many who are railing against the verdict have been too quick to bash an institution they don’t fully understand.
“I think a lot of the criticism is from people who don’t know the law, who are very uneducated about the process,” said attorney Al Flora, the former Luzerne County chief public defender.
“I think the verdict was correct,” he said.
Panowicz, 29, was accused of leaving the scene after striking Sharon Shaughnessy as the 32-year-old Kingston woman crossed Wyoming Avenue near Pierce Street on the night of Aug. 27, 2008. Shaughnessy, who was then struck by two other vehicles, was pronounced dead at the scene.
Panowicz, who admitted stopping and then leaving without immediately calling 911, reported her involvement to Kingston police about 12 hours after the accident. She testified at trial that she left in shock and panic after seeing the other two vehicles hit and mangle Shaughnessy.
The former Forty Fort resident was acquitted after a two-day bench trial before visiting Centre County Senior Judge Charles Brown, at which her attorney father, Robert Panowicz, argued that his daughter’s actions should be viewed under a legal doctrine called “substantial compliance.”
The doctrine was cited to show that while Panowicz may have committed “a technical violation” by leaving, she nevertheless was in compliance with the spirit of state law.
Robert Panowicz also said there was no aid his daughter could have rendered to Shaughnessy after the other two cars struck her.
That line of thought has had readers crying foul, calling for everything from an investigation into Brown’s verdict to the judge’s dismissal.
Peter Paul Olszewski Jr., former county district attorney and judge, said he was not adequately familiar with the details of the case to comment on specifics of the trial, but expressed some surprise at how vehement some of the comments against Brown have been.
“It demonstrates a lack of knowledge, a lack of understanding about the criminal justice system,” Olszewski said.
“Both the defense and the Commonwealth agreed to have a non-jury trial,” Olszewski added. “Both sides had faith and confidence in Judge Brown.”
“The Commonwealth has to agree to a trial by judge,” he noted — which they did, on Monday.
Flora believes that was the right choice, saying the facts in the case were not in dispute. Rather, it turned on a question of law, which a judge would typically be better equipped to assess than a jury.
Brown delivered his verdict with little explanation, leaving some in the courtroom and many in the community wondering how it reconciled with state vehicle law that requires motorists to stop, render aid, exchange information with the other driver if possible — and, if not, to call police if they are not already present or en route.
A call to Brown’s chambers following the verdict was not returned.
The prosecutor, Deputy Attorney General Clarke Madden, declined comment.
Robert Panowicz and his daughter did not speak to the media while leaving court. Multiple messages left for Robert Panowicz at his office on Wednesday and Thursday went unanswered.
While father and daughter expressed their relief in a Thursday media interview, they were silent as to the verdict itself.
Olszewski pointed out that those pining for the judge to justify his verdict in print are destined to be disappointed.
“Judges don’t have to do that when they give a verdict, and neither do juries,” Olszewski said.
“When is the last time a jury has been criticized like this?” he asked. “I just think the venom that I’m hearing from some people is just uncalled for.”
Some readers have drawn parallels between Panowicz’s case and that of Thomas W. Letteer Jr., 24, who was sentenced in May to serve two to five years in prison for running over Kevin Miller, 5, on Dec. 21, 2012.
Letteer pleaded guilty in March to accidents involving death, a second-degree felony, in connection with the crash.
Wilkes-Barre police and Luzerne County detectives alleged Letteer was driving the red 1999 Pontiac Grand Am that struck Kevin as the boy crossed North Street with his parents and two brothers after they left a Christmas party that snowy December night.
Then, investigators and witnesses have said, Letteer drove off without stopping.
Two days after Kevin’s death, on Dec. 23, 2012, investigators said they spoke with Letteer at his home. Then, Letteer said he had not been in Wilkes-Barre on Dec. 21, and never goes to Wilkes-Barre, police said.
Police said further investigation contradicted Letteer’s account. He was arrested on April 4, 2013.
Flora rejected arguments comparing the two cases, on several grounds.
First, he stressed that the manner in which Panowicz operated her vehicle was not legally faulted.
Police said Panowicz admitted looking down briefly to change the radio station, while passing through a green light, then looked up to see Shaughnessy directly in front of her. Reconstruction at the scene determined that Megan Panowicz was driving about 29 mph and attempted to brake and steer away from Shaughnessy.
He also stressed that the charge against Panowicz dealt with a failure to communicate with police, not committing physical harm.
“She was not on trial for vehicular homicide,” he said. “You have to look at it in context.”
He acknowledged that state law requires motorists to contact police immediately in injury or damage accidents — “forthwith” is what the statute says — but like Robert Panowicz, Flora suggested a rigid interpretation of that would not be appropriate to the Panowicz case.
He also dismissed suggestions by prosecutor Madden and others that the ruling would send a message to drivers — especially drunk drivers — that it’s now OK to flee and report when they feel like doing so.
“You do not have a person who flees the scene in this case,” he said, adding that unlike a person exhibiting criminal intent by simply driving away without stopping, Panowicz did stop, and ultimately contacted police.
“That’s not the way people with any type of criminal thinking behave,” he said.
Panowicz, who had been watching a baseball game at her then-boyfriend’s house in Kingston, said she only consumed orange juice and water that evening prior to the crash.
And although she violated the letter of the law by not calling 911 — Panowicz did admit to texting her sister four times around the time of the crash, and she drove past the Kingston police station on the way home from the crash — Flora said Panowicz did honor the spirit of the law when she reported to police the following morning and cooperated with the investigation.
Flora also said, as Robert Panowicz argued at trial, that there is ample precedent in Pennsylvania for use of the substantial compliance defense, saying he was aware of such cases dating back to the 1970s.
Attorney Panowicz cited a 1941 case at trial which, like his daughter’s case, involved a pedestrian struck by three vehicles in which the first driver left the scene.
“There are plenty of cases out there,” Flora said. “This is not something that was concocted by a lawyer or by a judge.”
Not all agree
The Panowicz case — dragged out by years of motions over everything from Robert Panowicz’s intention to defend his daughter to his efforts to mount an insanity defense — has unfolded against a changing political scene.
The original charges were brought by then-District Attorney Jackie Musto Carroll. She was defeated in the 2011 election by the current DA, Stefanie Salavantis.
The state Office of Attorney General prosecuted the case because Salavantis had worked with Robert Panowicz before taking office.
Salavantis said Friday that she preferred not to comment on the verdict, given her prior recusal from the case.
Musto Carroll, meanwhile, was among those who were not pleased at the outcome.
“I was very disappointed by the verdict. Clearly, more than enough evidence existed to support a guilty verdict,” Musto Carroll said.
“I think it’s very clear she was in an accident and left the scene.”