Closing arguments resume in Traffic Court trial

Posted: July 19, 2014

Update: Defense lawyers resumed their closing arguments Friday morning.

Earlier Story:

Jurors weighing the case of five former Philadelphia Traffic Court judges accused of favoring friends and political allies in a years-long ticket-fixing conspiracy were offered two standards Thursday by which to judge the defendants:

The capital-J justice invoked by prosecutor Anthony Wzorek, who opened his closing argument by citing the pledge etched into the marble facade of the U.S. Supreme Court - "Equal Justice Under the Law."

Or the more grimy reality sketched by defense lawyer William Brennan of a harried court overseen by jurists striving to make fair decisions in the face of tremendous workloads and pressure to grant political favors.

"The system in Philadelphia may stink, but that's the way it is," Brennan said. "Maybe everything wasn't perfect ethically, but it's not a federal crime."

Those remarks came as lawyers for both sides prepared to hand over the federal conspiracy and fraud case against former Traffic Court Judges Michael J. Sullivan, Michael Lowry, Robert Mulgrew, Willie Singletary, and Thomasine Tynes to a panel expected to begin deliberations next week.

Since May, prosecutors have painted Traffic Court as a judicial system plagued by cronyism, and its judges as corrupt magistrates whose decisions cost the city and state millions in unrealized fines.

Judges routinely passed requests for "consideration" between chambers - all seeking special treatment for family members, friends, and political allies. When flagged cases came up for a hearing, the ticket-holder was almost always found not guilty, sometimes without even having to show up in court.

Those who did attend court dates were often told by court staff even before the judges took the bench that their tickets had been dismissed.

"What a country," Wzorek said Thursday. "You don't have to say a word. You just stand up, and you're found not guilty."

Returning again to the Supreme Court ideal he referenced at the start of his argument, Wzorek paused to mull what etching over the Traffic Court entryway would best warn citizens what type of justice they could expect inside.

" 'Who do you know?' would have been appropriate," he said. " 'You're going to need a hookup' would have been another option."

But while defense lawyers acknowledged their clients had committed ethical lapses, including failing to recuse themselves from cases involving relatives and discussing cases outside of court, they maintained that none of their clients ever accepted a bribe and that their other judicial failings did not amount to a federal crime.

Prosecutors built each count of their wire- and mail-fraud case upon 50 individual traffic citations, each of which they allege was fixed through the court's "consideration" system.

Countering government arguments, Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., who represents Sullivan, adopted a by-the-numbers approach, engaging the government in ticket-by-ticket warfare.

He argued the basis for each citation his client was accused of fixing and, citing statistics, contended that the overwhelming majority of defendants who challenged their tickets received some sort of break from the judge.

"Whether there was a request for consideration or not, if it was a bad ticket, it was going to be thrown out," Hockeimer said. "There is no fraud."

Brennan, who represents Singletary, made a more visceral appeal to jurors - highlighting his client's stature as a beloved pastor, while casting him as an impressionable twentysomething, with only a high school diploma, when he was elected to the court in 2007.

Singletary merely followed a tradition established long before of granting dismissal requests from city council members, ward leaders, and court staff, Brennan said.

"Willie Singletary was too much of a Samaritan. Too often, he told people, 'Let me see what I can do,' " Brennan told jurors. "The system is what it is. Willie didn't create it."

Lawyers for the three other judges will get their chance to address jurors Friday. The panel is also expected to hear arguments from two others also charged in the case - a suburban magistrate who often filled in at Traffic Court and a Chinatown translator who advertised a no-point guarantee to clients based on his connections at the court.

Jurors are expected to begin deliberating the case Monday.

215-925-2649 @jeremyrroebuck

comments powered by Disqus