Hear what Pittsburgh judges, criminal lawyers and other veterans of our legal system have to say about some of our most memorable trials.
Illustration by Amy Wasserman
The crime drama “Law & Order,” with its many spin-offs (“Law & Order: SVU,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”) and imitators, remains among the longest-running and most-watched television shows in history. With its riveting plot lines and passionate performances, it’s easy to see why. But ask some of those who practice criminal law and some of the judges who preside over these cases, and they’ll tell you that even the best “Law & Order” scripts fail to capture the drama of real criminal trials, the sort of which play out every day in Grant Street courtrooms. Of course, proceedings in other courts of law—civil, family, orphans’—can have their theatrical moments, but perhaps because the stakes are so high in criminal court, with life and liberty at stake, criminal trials can make for especially compelling human drama. “A trial lawyer’s career is equal parts tragedy and comedy,” explains attorney Laura Ditka, a 20-year veteran of the county prosecutor’s office.
In that spirit, here are just a few of the most unforgettable criminal trials Allegheny County has seen in the last 30 years, as described in their own words by those who prosecuted, defended, presided over or testified in them.
Nearly a dozen of the most experienced trial lawyers and judges and one heroic victim of violence sat down to speak with me and share highlights from their experiences in the courtroom. Any one of these lawyers and judges could have provided enough memories to fill a book. (Senior U.S. District Judge Maurice B. Cohill Jr. is in the midst of writing his own.) These, as they say on “Law & Order,” are their stories.
But ask some of those who practice criminal law and some of the judges who preside over these cases, and they’ll tell you that even the best “Law & Order” scripts fail to capture the drama of real criminal trials, the sort of which play out every day in Grant Street courtrooms. Of course, proceedings in other courts of law—civil, family, orphans’—can have their theatrical moments, but perhaps because the stakes are so high in criminal court, with life and liberty at stake, criminal trials can make for especially compelling human drama. “A trial lawyer’s career is equal parts tragedy and comedy,” explains attorney Laura Ditka, a 20-year veteran of the county prosecutor’s office.
A LANDMARK SPREE KILLING
Richard Baumhammers went to his next-door neighbor’s house on the afternoon of April 28, 2000, and fatally shot Anita Gordon, 63, before setting her house on fire. After killing Gordon, who was Jewish, he drove to her synagogue, Beth El Congregation, in Scott Township, and spray-painted two swastikas onto the side of the building. That afternoon he went on to shoot and kill an Indian man buying groceries and paralyze the store manager, murder two Asian employees of a Chinese restaurant in Robinson Town Centre and execute an African-American man exercising at a Beaver County karate studio in the deadliest shooting rampage in Allegheny County history.
Baumhammers, a 34-year-old lawyer, was charged with 19 crimes, which included ethnic intimidation, arson, reckless endangerment, firearms violations, aggravated assault and homicide. Baumhammers was an avowed white supremacist who had lived for a time in Europe before returning to his parents’ home here.
The case was so well publicized, including coverage in The New York Times, that, as Judge Jeffrey A. Manning of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, the judge who presided over the trial, recalls, 297 prospective jurors were interviewed over an eight-day period. Of that number, only one hadn’t heard anything about the case.
At Baumhammers’ trial, defense attorney William H. Difenderfer tried to mount an insanity defense, but, as Manning explains, such a defense was an uphill battle for Baumhammers, as it always is for defendants in Pennsylvania, a state that follows the British Common Law test for insanity first laid down in the 1843 M’Naghten case. That is, that the defendant could not tell right from wrong, nor could he appreciate the consequences of his actions.
In the end, Baumhammers’ insanity defense was “not very effective,” says Manning, but there still were some “stunning” moments at trial, particularly when Sandeep Patel, the 25-year-old grocery-store manager who was shot in the neck and paralyzed, entered the courtroom in a “half gurney, half chair” to testify about the shooting.
Defense counsel objected, Manning recalls, because Patel, who has since died from complications due to quadriplegia, could not identify the shooter. He could, however, testify to being shot and where he was at the time, and Manning remembers telling Baumhammers’ attorney, for the record: “When you shoot someone, you might well expect that they will show up in court to testify against you.”
For Baumhammers’ prosecutor, Edward J. Borkowski, now himself a criminal-court judge on Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, one of the most memorable and moving moments of that trial occurred not during the trial itself but during the sentencing phase, when victims and their families typically address the court to share how they’ve been affected and to recommend a penalty.
The father of 34-year-old Ji-ye Sun, the Chinese restaurant manager who was among Baumhammers’ victims, was a high-ranking member of the Chinese Red Army, Borkowski recalls, who had come from China in full military uniform (a greenish-gray tunic with red and gold trim). At that moment, “all of the hostility, tension and acrimony between the United States and China fell away.”
What was left, he recalls, was “a different dynamic between the witness and the jury. Here was just a father testifying about the love of a son, about the impact that this loss had on him and the mother.” That victim’s mother, Borkowski went on to say, had testified that she cried so much and for so long that she needed surgery to save her from becoming blind.
The jury sentenced Richard Baumhammers to death for his crimes. He currently awaits execution in a state correctional facility
LEFT FOR DEAD: THE AMAZING SURVIVAL OF RASHEEDA PENNYBAKER
Rasheeda Pennybaker was 19 years old back in February 2002 when her fiancé, Kenneth Sharp, was murdered before her eyes and she was shot twice and left for dead in a West Mifflin garage. The shooter, 27-year-old Dion Jamal Horton, had intended to slay Sharp because he had seen Horton kill a Duquesne man two days earlier, Pennybaker explains. Under the pretext of giving the couple a ride home, Horton drove them to the remote location, produced a shotgun, pumped four rounds into Sharp’s body, and then, as Pennybaker rushed to her fiancé’s aid, shot her directly in the face and back. “No, not her,” were her fiancé’s last words, she recalls.
Pennybaker, who was six months pregnant at the time, remembers trying to shield her abdomen as bullets now tore through her. “I thought, ‘If I’m not dead, I have to act like I’m dead so he’d stop shooting.’” After the sixth shotgun blast, Pennybaker heard Horton drive away, and she stumbled some 200 yards to her pastor’s house to get help.
With no jaw left, she found that she couldn’t speak, and so she wrote out the details of the shooting on the back of a church bulletin as police arrived minutes later. After six weeks in Mercy Hospital, Pennybaker would stabilize and begin a long, arduous process of recovery, involving some 20 surgeries and “a lot of pain, stress and constant nightmares.”
What sustained her, though, was the thought that she was still pregnant with her daughter. Pennybaker would go on to successfully deliver that child, whom the nurses at Mercy Hospital gave the name “Miracle.” She would need to learn to walk and talk all over again, and today her face remains scarred from the attack, but with the help of “the best doctors in the world,” Pennybaker steadily regained more of her strength and former appearance.
Three years after the shootings, she appeared in an Allegheny County courtroom to testify against Horton in the murder of her boyfriend. In a dramatic moment at the trial, the prosecution showed a photo of Sharp’s bullet-ridden body at the scene, and Pennybaker, seeing it for the first time, fled the room in tears.
Defense attorney John L. Elash recalls that it took “one closet lifer on the jury” to spare his client from execution. Horton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Today, Pennybaker continues her road to recovery, one that she hopes will soon lead her to area high schools, where she plans to talk to youth about “the ripple effect of violence; how doing violence hurts your family and the family of those you hurt.” She hopes to use the attention she’s received to raise awareness about the need for victims and witnesses of violent crime to come forward and condemn those acts when they occur in their midst.
Courtrooms can be the stage where some of the most profound, horrendous episodes in life are exposed and examined so that justice can be served. But sometimes a few quirky, humorous experiences also take place in this setting. Here are a few examples:
The late Judge Robert E. Dauer of Allegheny County Common Pleas Court famously took the bench on Halloween, one year before his death in 2002, dressed as the fictional wizard Harry Potter (down to the tape on his black glasses, his wand and Hogwarts robe). In tribute to the jurist, Common Pleas Court Judge David R. Cashman decided that he, too, would don a wizard’s costume on the following Halloween. He found a powder-blue robe to wear and a pointy hat adorned with white stars.
What he hadn’t counted on that day was seeing a particular defendant he had earlier committed to Mayview State Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. Cashman had done so, he explains, because when the defendant was pulled over for driving under the influence, his only comments to police were barking sounds (“Woof, woof”).
Now this man was released from Mayview and was appearing back before the judge on the DUI charge (for which he was convicted), only to find Cashman dressed like Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in J.K. Rowling’s famous children’s books.
As Cashman recalls, the defendant’s first words were: “And you sent me to Mayview?” He demanded to know what Cashman was supposed to be. “I’m a wizard,” he said. “Where is your magic wand?” the man countered. “I don’t have a wand, but I have this fountain pen,” the judge answered. “How are you supposed to make me disappear with that?” the defendant wondered. “See this pen?” came Cashman’s reply. “Over the years, I have made more people disappear with this pen than you know.”
THE LONE RANGER
Defense attorney Patrick J. Thomassey will never forget the time back in the late-1980s when an attorney friend was scheduled to appear in a local magistrate’s office to defend a client where he wasn’t much liked by the judge or the police who filed their cases there. The attorney did not have a valid driver’s license at the time. “I overheard the magisterial district judge and an officer talking about him coming to court that day,” Thomassey recalls, “and I called this friend ahead of time to warn him” that he was going to be cited for driving without a license.
The friend, Thomassey goes on to explain, had an answer to that problem. He called in a favor from a colleague at Allegheny County Police headquarters. Just in time for court, the attorney pulled up on horseback and nonchalantly tied the steed to a tree outside the judge’s office. Says Thomassey: “We laughed about that for years.”
CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?
Laura Ditka was in her first year as a county prosecutor in 1989 when she found herself trying a jury trial against criminal defense attorney Bob Garshak. Today, she no longer even recalls what the charges in the case were, other than to say that her case had “gone nicely” before she and opposing counsel proceeded with their closing arguments.
The defense attorney went first, as is the custom, and Ditka was unimpressed. “He’s doing his closing and going on and on about proverbs and birds,” she remembers. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Man, I’m going to win this.’”
Suddenly, Garshak stopped in mid-speech as his briefcase proceeded to ring. Keep in mind, says Ditka, that this is the 1980s, and cell phones were still a novelty and came in big duffle bags. Garshak apologized to the judge and jury, but proceeded to take the call in the middle of his closing argument. “All the jurors turned to look. They were so enamored. They thought he was James Bond, a man talking to his briefcase.”
The jury deliberated “about a half hour” before returning a unanimous verdict of not guilty. “After he answered his briefcase, I knew there was nothing I could say or do to compete with that,” says Ditka on reflection. “The jury was already mesmerized.”
DEFENDANTS SAY THE DARNDEST THINGS
Longtime Allegheny County Assistant Public Defender Michelle Collins knows it’s rare when a criminal defendant admits under the pressure of a prosecutor’s cross-examination that he did the crime (that sort of thing usually only happens on TV). She knows it’s virtually unheard of that a defendant confesses to a crime under direct examination, the friendly, typically self-serving round of questioning by that person’s own lawyer. But it happened to her, about 10 years ago, in a bench trial over an armed robbery of a grocery store in Pittsburgh.
As Collins recalls, she had four alibi witnesses drive from Atlanta to testify that they were with the defendant in Georgia at the time of the robbery. Her first softball question to her client was to ask his name. Her second question was to ask him where he was during the robbery. He immediately broke down and confessed: “I did it!” A smiling prosecutor, she recalls, leaned over to ask her if she was through with her questions. The defendant was found guilty.
Collins, for her part, says she tried to discourage the defendant from taking the stand. “I thought he was just an idiot. I didn’t recognize that testifying was going to be so cathartic for him.”
Geoffrey W. Melada is a trial lawyer and frequent contributor to Pittsburgh magazine. His last feature, “Heir Apparent,” was a profile of UPMC executive Liz Concordia for the May 2009 issue.