Salavantis: Remarks did not violate order or defendant's rights

Last updated: July 18. 2014 12:08AM - 1874 Views
By - rdupuis@civitasmedia.com

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WILKES-BARRE — The lawyer for a city homicide suspect and the Luzerne County District Attorney's office engaged in a heated war of words Thursday over whether remarks by DA Stefanie Salavantis violated a judicial gag order in the case.
Peter J. Moses, defense attorney for Joshua Carlos Ovalles, filed a motion alleging that comments made by Salavantis to a reporter for the Citizens' Voice newspaper earlier this week violated an Oct. 30 court order, as they were “likely, if not designed, to interfere with the rights of the defendant to a fair and impartial trial,” according to the filing.
Salavantis responded by denying the allegation, and firing back that Moses' contention “is not only grossly in error, it is irresponsible.”
Ovalles, 20, of Kent Lane, Wilkes-Barre, was charged in the fatal shooting of Vaughn Kemp, 24, outside 174 S. Grant St., Wilkes-Barre, on July 7, 2013.
His non-jury trial before Luzerne County President Judge Thomas F. Burke Jr. was set to begin Monday. The proceeding was continued indefinitely after prosecutors said they plan to appeal Burke's ruling that the DA's office didn't do enough to keep an alleged witness from leaving the area.
Erik Rodriguez, 18, fled the United States sometime in April and returned to his native Dominican Republic, prosecutors have said.
The DA's office sought to have Rodriguez' testimony from a 2013 preliminary hearing submitted at trial in his absence, but Moses argued that such a move would violate his client's constitutional rights. He also blasted prosecutors for failing to serve Rodriguez with papers or label him a material witness.
Burke agreed, prohibiting use of Rodriguez' testimony. The judge noted that prosecutors never served Rodriguez with a subpoena that would have included a date and time to appear in court to testify, never requested to have Rodriguez labeled as a material witness and made no efforts to have Rodriguez returned to Luzerne County to testify.
On Thursday, Moses took aim at Salavantis's comments to the other newspaper, asking the court to compel prosecutors to comply with its gag order “as well as to satisfy any additional sanctions deemed warranted by the court.”
When a Times Leader reporter contacted Salavantis last week with questions about the case prior to the trial date, she confirmed that her office understood Rodriguez to be out of the country, but said she could not comment further due to the judge's order.
As reprinted in Salavantis' response to Moses' motion on Thursday, her comments to the other newspaper, as published following Monday's proceedings, were: “'Rodriguez had testified before, and there was no reason to believe he wouldn't show up again,' said Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis. By the time her office learned the trial date, Rodriguez was no longer in the country, so police couldn't deliver a subpoena.”
Moses maintains Salavantis also “spoke to the media about the proceeding, providing statements about the alleged fear of the witness to testify, the yet to be filed appeal, and the Commonwealth's plans to now, for the first time, attempt to procure the live testimony of the underlying witness.”
He goes on to state that such statements could have an adverse impact on the potential jury pool, should Ovalles decide to proceed by jury trial following the appeal.
Salavantis replied that testimony about Rodriguez's fear originally was presented at last summer's preliminary hearing, and that her remarks in the newspaper story merely reiterated the circumstances which led to the trial delay, and which already had been discussed in open court.
She added that statements about proceeding with an appeal and attempting to bring Rodriguez back to testify “are statements about the actions of the office in light of the circumstances which are obvious and in no way prejudicial.”
Salavantis said her office will comply with the gag order, that her statements were not in violation and no sanctions are warranted.
“Further, as the statements, which speak for themselves, are not in violation of the order, a hearing is not needed but will merely serve as a stage for defense counsel to grandstand, drawing more attention to an issue he claims will pollute the jury pool,” the DA's statement concludes.

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