Go to trial or go free?
SUNBURY - A Selinsgrove man charged in an armed robbery at a Paxinos home 7 1/2 years ago faced two separate hearings before different judges Thursday afternoon to determine if he goes to trial or remains free.
Arguments were made by attorneys over whether prosecutors violated Rule 600 that requires defendants to be brought to trial within 365 days after they are charged, and if a search warrant was legally signed. But no rulings were issued in the ongoing case of 23-year-old Erik Jamel Harrington.
The defendant is charged by Trooper Ronald Zanella of state police at Stonington with multiple offenses in connection with the July 16, 2005, armed robbery at the Paxinos residence of 55-year-old James Honecker, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and is confined to a wheelchair.
A criminal complaint was filed against Harrington on March 4, 2010, but the defendant reportedly fled to North Carolina, where authorities said he has relatives. He was taken into custody April 29, 2011, by authorities in North Carolina and was arraigned May 17, 2011, by Magisterial District Judge John Gembic III on felony offenses of robbery, burglary, aggravated assault, theft, criminal conspiracy to commit robbery, criminal conspiracy to commit burglary, aiding the consummation of a crime and simple assault.
After his extradition to Pennsylvania, he was incarcerated in prisons in Snyder and Northumberland counties. But his bail was reduced by Judge William H. Wiest from $100,000 cash to $50,000 cash at a hearing May 24, 2012. The commonwealth opposed the reduction, but it was still granted, and Harrington was able to hire a bondsman to post the bail. He was released from Northumberland County Prison on Oct. 9.
Thursday's first hearing before Wiest dealt with Rule 600 and included testimony from Zanella, Gembic and Northumberland County Adult Probation Officer Esther Rhodes.
Zanella presented a history of the armed robbery investigation. The trooper said police were able to obtain enough evidence, including DNA from the crime scene, linking Harrington to the robbery.
The trooper said he talked several times with Rhodes, who was Harrington's probation officer at the time, in an attempt to inform him that he was being charged in the robbery. He said Rhodes told him Harrington was not living at his last known residence in Selinsgrove.
He said Rhodes advised the defendant about turning himself into authorities, but the defendant failed to do so and reportedly fled to North Carolina.
Zanella said arrest and fugitive warrants were issued for Harrington. He said one of the warrants included an extradition order. He also said Harrington's name was entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) system and the U.S. Marshal's Service was made aware of the arrest warrants for Harrington.
But the trooper said the defendant wasn't taken into custody until April 2011.
Gembic confirmed the date when the charges were filed against Harrington and when he was arraigned. The judge said requests were made for fugitive and bench warrants against the defendant. He said a warrant was served on Harrington on May 16, 2011.
He said Harrington's initial preliminary hearing set for June 2, 2011, was continued until July 29, 2011, at which time the defendant waived his case to the Court of Common Pleas in Sunbury.
Rhodes testified that Harrington absconded from authorities, who were unable to locate him until April 2011. Rhodes said she informed Harrington that he was wanted on a bench warrant and advised him to turn himself over to authorities. She said Harrington did not inform her of his whereabouts when they communicated with each other.
The probation officer, who noted Harrington owed fines and costs, said her office did not take additional action against Harrington after the warrant was served for his arrest.
In his closing argument, Harrington's attorney, Peter Campana of Williamsport, argued that police and prosecutors did not exhibit due diligence in their efforts to locate Harrington after he left the state. He told the judge, "They didn't go to his former residence to check if he was there or confer with any of his friends who may have known where he was. I believe there was insufficient activity on their part."
Assistant District Attorney Michael Toomey said, "There was more than due diligence in trying to locate him. Who would know more about his whereabouts than his probation officer? He was on the lam and wasn't coming back. By fleeing the state, that implies guilt, and he had to be extradited."
Campana and Toomey were each given 10 days by Wiest to present case law supporting their arguments.
The defendant and the attorneys then walked next door to President Judge Robert B. Sacavage's courtroom to hear arguments over a motion filed by Campana to suppress evidence.
Zanella, who was the only witness at the second hearing, testified that he applied and obtained a search warrant from Wiest.
Campana said the search warrant issued by Wiest was not valid because the judge failed to sign his name on the line indicating probable cause. He cited case law in his argument and discussed a similar incident that occurred in Northumberland County.
He also argued that probable cause did not exist to issue the warrant.
He said authorities were only told that Harrington couldn't be eliminated from the list of people who may have the same DNA collected at the scene of the robbery, which he said was a far cry from proving it was his client's DNA.
Campana said, "There is no search warrant signed by the judge in this case. Perhaps, he meant to sign it, but he can't amend it."
Toomey disagreed with Campana's arguments about the search warrant being invalid and the DNA analysis.
He said Wiest signed two other parts of the search warrant and cited case law indicating the warrant was still valid.
The assistant district attorney said police established probable cause to have the warrant issued and that authorities were told it was impossible to exclude Harrington's DNA from matching DNA found on a soda bottle at the robbery scene.
Sacavage said he would carefully study both arguments before rendering a decision, but the judge gave no time frame when he would issue a ruling.
If Wiest rules that prosecutors violated Rule 600, Harrington, who is currently free on bail, would not have to face trial. If the judge rules in favor of the commonwealth and the case proceeds to trial, Sacavage's ruling on the motion to suppress evidence would determine if the search warrant and DNA analysis could be used as evidence at trial.
Possible trial in April
Harrington was scheduled to go to trial the week of Feb. 11, but with attorneys being granted a total of 20 days to file case law before Wiest renders a decision on the Rule 600 issue, the trial will probably be rescheduled for the April term of criminal court.
Honecker, who is disgusted and frustrated that Harrington is free and hasn't been brought to trial yet, was not in attendance at either hearing. He had been present for numerous other legal proceedings related to the case.
Police said Harrington, Sees and two other assailants, all wearing dark clothing, hats and bandanas across their faces, are accused of entering Honecker's home at 1:30 a.m. and holding him at gunpoint in his living room while threatening to kill him.
Police said the robbers demanded money, ransacked the home and removed 12 rifles and shotguns, knives, ammunition, cash, jewelry, an amplifier and prescription narcotics with a total value of $5,590. Police said the robbers also caused approximately $300 in damage by pulling telephone cords from the wall and damaging two televisions.
Sees was charged by state police at Stonington on Aug. 15, 2006, and eventually pleaded guilty to felony charges of burglary and robbery. He was sentenced to 3 1/3 to 6 2/3 years in state prison and ordered to pay $300 in fines plus costs, make $4,000 restitution to Honecker and approximately $8,800 restitution to Honecker's insurance company.
Sees has since completed his state prison sentence and is free, and Honecker said he's received a few hundred dollars in restitution.
The other two assailants Honecker claims were involved in the robbery were never located or charged, police said.