Defense in ticket-fixing trial opens with character witnesses

Posted: July 12, 2014

If jurors walked away with one word lodged in their heads after the first day of defense testimony in the federal trial of five former Philadelphia Traffic Court judges, it is likely to have been impeccable.

A parade of character witnesses employed that adjective over and over again Thursday to describe the reputations of the former jurists now facing mail- and wire-fraud charges.

How would Judge Michael Lowry's character best be described?

"Impeccable," said several of his childhood pals.

What was Judge Thomasine Tynes' reputation for following the law?

"Impeccable," replied friend and longtime CBS3 reporter Trudy Haynes.

Even Tynes' former gynecologist joined in the refrain - although Richard Nemiroff offered a slight variation when asked to describe his patient's stature in the community.

"Without blemish," he said.

Thursday wasn't just a succession of superlatives. It was defense lawyers' first opportunity to take the offensive.

For more than a month, prosecutors depicted a culture of corruption at Traffic Court, with judges routinely dismissing tickets for friends and the politically connected.

Judges and court staff referred to such favors from the bench as requests for "consideration," government lawyers say, glossing over the fact that fixed tickets cost the city and state hundreds of thousands of dollars in uncollected revenue every year.

The judges' lawyers have stressed that what prosecutors may call special consideration, they would describe as judicial discretion - their clients' prerogative to dole out justice as they saw fit.

But given the chance to present their own case Thursday, the defense team zeroed in on another argument entirely:

Almost everyone who contested a ticket in Traffic Court received some sort of break - not just those who reached out through ward leaders, the well-connected, or the judges themselves for help. And they offered statistics in the hope of proving it.

A defense expert called to analyze the court's adjudications from 2008 through 2011 told jurors that nearly all defendants who showed up to court either had their charges reduced or their tickets dismissed.

Judge Robert Mulgrew, for example, doled out leniency to 73 percent of the ticket-holders who came through his court in 2009, their analysis showed.

Prosecutor Anthony Wzorek was quick to counter that the defense data did not account for ticket-holders whose citations were dismissed without coming to court. Many of the prosecution witnesses who said their connections earned them special treatment testified that they never bothered to argue their cases in front of a judge.

Also, Wzorek noted, the statistics showed a significant drop in the leniency rate of all of the judges between 2010 and 2011 - after federal agents raided the court's Spring Garden offices and news of the FBI ticket-fixing investigation became widespread.

But Ari Gutman - a Center City dermatologist - caught a break in court during that period, despite having, as he described it, "zero connections in Philadelphia."

After passing a police van on Broad Street in 2010, he was cited for failing to use his turn signal - an allegation he denied. The officer who pulled him over not only gave him a ticket, but berated him for putting his infant son in danger, he said.

"The whole thing - for lack of a better word - it was very wacky," Gutman told jurors.

The doctor felt so strongly that he had been wronged that he took his ticket to court, and Judge Michael J. Sullivan agreed to throw out the citation.

Gutman was pleasantly surprised by the outcome and wrote Sullivan a thank-you note - a letter he closed with the line, "Thank you for your time and consideration."

Here, Sullivan's lawyers were quick to point out, consideration had no special meaning.

Testimony is scheduled to resume Monday.


>Inquirer.com

For additional coverage, go to www.inquirer.com/trafficcourt


jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-925-2649 @jeremyrroebuck

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