A story about one Irishman’s bravery and his fearless journey in uncovering a web of lies exposing the criminal activities ongoing in our judicial system. In the midst of evil and corruption, Bernie is an inspiring tale about a hero walking among us.
On October 13, 2014, Bernie Cantorna decided to follow a gut instinct and filed a motion alleging ex parte communications had occurred between the Judge and the prosecutor in a criminal trial. The allegations were substantiated by only a few witnessed accounts, but despite the weak evidence, he was unfazed and fearlessly picked a fight.
After the trial of Jalene McClure, Bernie filed a motion to recuse the Judge and Prosecutor under suspicions of inappropriate contact – incestuous judicial relationships that were in shocking violation of the code of ethics and codes of judicial conduct. Many were so appalled by the content of his allegations that they initially thought him to be crazy. His lawyer friends and peers tried to talk him out of doing it. With marked bravery and boldness, and in the interest of protecting his client and justice, he set forth in writing a brazen motion that told an almost unbelievable tale.
The motion was received – as one could imagine – with wrathful anger, aggression and maliciousness by the Court and the district attorney. On the day this Irishman walked in to argue the motion, he was insulted, called a liar, almost cited/sanctioned, disparaged and laughed out of court. He lost the motion and outraged the judge and the prosecutor, both of whom made fun of him and put him to shame.
Two weeks later he got the proof he needed, and knew existed, when he received an answer to his Right to Know request. This is the story of Bernie: what they did to him, his brave actions in protecting his client and what he did for us, the people, in Centre County.
Cantorna’s first move in his motion to recuse in the McClure trial was to call witnesses, which of course Stacy Parks Miller (SPM) immediately objected to. Emotionally and angrily she contested: “He most certainly will not [be allowed to call witnesses corroborating she, her ADA’s and the Judge were texting during criminal trials]. If those people want to say such things, they will come here and subject themselves to my cross [examination].”
She further went on “He didn’t bring any witness apparently today that have first-hand knowledge of this. There was no reason he could have brought the president Judge if this is allegedly true. And my hearsay poll of incestuous people at the courthouse say it’s not true, that the discussion was had. So you see innuendo versus innuendo. (Bernie had subpoenaed the witnesses day of, at the last minute.)
“I move to quash the subpoena he served 20 minutes ago with a smirk on his face” fumed the DA.
“Granted”, responded Lunsford.
The responding DA likely had heart-pounding guilt and fear throughout the argument as Bernie was right about his instincts. She, SPM, presented a barrage of personal, ugly attacks that were designed specifically to injure and not for the sake of amicable justice, as should be the purpose of all litigation.
Maren Caloupka, a recognized senior trial attorney, recounted the DA’s characteristic advocacy style, specifically during the trial of Jalene McClure, remarking in a signed affidavit of the nasty qualities of the DA’s courtroom demeanor. It is important to note these qualities, because Bernie must have borne the brunt of them a million-fold due to his allegations of her. Caloupka wrote the following in an affidavit accompanying Bernie’s motion:
“While the cold record may not reflect this, the overall tone of the DA was during my single day watching trial, indignant and highly emotional. While the Court had admonished counsel outside of the jury’s presence, before opening statements, that this trial would not be a “Circus” and had ordered counsel to respect the Court’s authority, the atmosphere during the trial was chaotic and permissible of the DA’s conduct. Despite my fairly extensive [And impressive] trial experience (which includes experience of trying cases involving allegations of child abuse), I have never before seen a presentation with this level of emotionality.”
This point is designed and included specifically to create context for the reader, not to attack the DA. The excerpt above is included to give you an idea as to the Medusa-like, emotionally unbalanced and mentally unstable demeanor that our unlucky protagonist had the misfortune of contending with when he chose to bravely uncover the truth. He was likely anticipating her head might detach itself from her body and spin around like the character from the exorcist. I can’t imagine he was not at least a little afraid, but then again he is Bernie, and maybe giants don’t feel fear, which is why they are giants.
Bernie argued forcefully and deftly tried to cut away the emotionally disturbed personal attacks and cut to the heart of the matter: “The issue is that it’s a social relationship and the contacts that this court has outside of – outside of the professional relationship that came to my attention. These are things that brought to me and as a lawyer; I cannot sit and not raise these issue.”
“I ask you to deny his motion completely, he shows you nothing but ugly innuendo and rumor,” the DA lashed back in a cutting response.
The fighting continued until Judge Lunsford interjected the tense exchange, with his first of many assertive, on-the-record, under-oath, mistruths:
“I have to be truthful here. I am telling you that there were no texts between Mr. Boob [Assistant DA to SPM at that time] and I during the trial. None. None whatsoever,” claimed Judge Lunsford.
The DA quickly jumped to the defense of Lunsford. The air in the courthouse must have been wrought with palpable tension. Her spite must have been almost tangible. “This is absolutely ridiculous. This is wrong. This is now speculation and innuendo. This is wrong. I mean, this is getting ridiculous. This is totally ridiculous.” retorted the DA to Bernie in insolence.
It appears she is a remarkably good actor as she was adept in quickly conveying false horror at the allegations. Texting? It was untrue and unconscionable; her attitude in the transcript seems to reflect. In reality, all of it was true and she had entered into mitigating the damages and concealing the truth. There were no records to prove it, she thought, and this gave her the ability to attack with ugly confidence. She could have qualified for an Emmy award for that performance. She lied throughout its entirety, and is a dangerous manipulator indeed.
She had no idea that the phone records were being produced as she spoke.
Bernie, however, did not participate in the personal attacks or emotionality in which she engaged in. Contrary to her emotional outbursts, he appears practical, level-headed and focused on the content and fact. As one reads through the transcript, his level of restraint and ability to focus on the issues at hand is confounding in its steadiness, particularly in the face of the DA’s hysteria. One has to wonder if he second-guessed himself during that proceeding simply in light of the sheer emotion and erratic rage elicited in the response of the DA from the motion. Even a quick skim through of the transcript and it’s apparent: Bernie is dead on and a true professional. His confidence only seems to shake slightly when the Judge joins in the offense against him.
What they did to that Bernie in that hearing is something for the history books. He was strung up, wrung up, and hung up, intentionally embarrassed and disparaged and personally insulted, professionally insulted, and yet he never lost his temper – not once. What they did to Bernie in that hearing – when they pretended to be insulted at the allegations, perpetuating their lies and commencing a brutal attack – it’s unconscionable and thankfully it’s chronicled for eternity in the public record. What they did to Bernie that day was stupidly unfair, but he handled it with nearly inhuman reasonableness, steadiness, heart-of-the-matter focus, rationality and restraint. He is the hallmark of a true professional. He shook his head once, a quiet expression of disgusted shock, but other than that there was no emotional response. Bernie’s restraint that day reveals the true nature of his character: brave, self-possessed, selfless and unwilling to back down, an unstoppable fighting and fearless advocate.
What they did to Bernie that day…. Well, you can read it for yourself in the transcript and from the excerpts I have included below that make it apparent. Bernie alleged they were texting in collusion together, off the record, in inappropriate and unethical and unprofessionally personal contexts, and that this was unfair and against the code of conduct and in flagrant violation of his client’s right to a fair and impartial jury client. The DA and Court responded with aggressive malice. Below are some highlights from court.
This is what they did to Bernie:
- “He can’t come in here and say I heard these rumors, now let me throw up everybody and invade their privacy and see if I’m right. The rules of ethics do not let him level these allegations publicly and then fish to see if he is right. That is impugning my integrity against your integrity.” – SPM
- “I think that is what’s most frustrating is that despite the law and despite what I am permitted to do, you have embellished these contacts and our relationships and in your motion you have indicated that because of numerous objections during the trial that more of them went to the Commonwealth then went to you and that is proof that I must like them better than you. That is about as far from the truth as anything can be.” – Lunsford
- “I am going to tell you; first of all, this is my first time in 18 years that my impartiality has ever been questioned. It is very frustrating for me. My life has been dedicated to being fair, even focusing on the legal issues that we have in this case or any legal issue.” – Lunsford
- “This was the most frustrating trial that I have ever presided over as a Common Pleas Court Judge and it was frustrating for a number of reasons. I am telling you this because you’ve questioned my impartiality and you’ve used the conduct of the parties as trial as a basis to prove that I am more partial to these two because you think I have some magical social relationship with them.” – Lunsford
- “You frustrated me on a number of different levels but primarily because you were incapable of navigating the rules of evidence and the rules of procedure. Mr. Cantorna, there were numerous objections over, and over, again that addressed your inability to do certain tasks like authenticating a document to the right witness or refreshing the recollection of a witness so much so that on two occasions, maybe even three, after one of these prosecutors or both of them objected they demanded a sidebar so that they could tell you have to do it. You got schooled by those prosecutors.” – Lunsford
- “I have had high school mock trial teams do better than you.” – Lunsford
- “There are no text messages between me or either of these prosecutors. None whatsoever. None.” – Lunsford
- “I hope you get them [the text messages]. I hope you get them. Take a look at them.” – Lunsford
- “You lost this trial on the facts but you have to be incredibly disappointed with your performance. Just my perception here. This has become personal for you. I don’t know if its personal because of the relationship you have with your client, or because you came in here and got schooled and you know your performance was bad but you are are looking for someone else to blame.” – Lunsford
- “I have got no bias. I am free from bias in this case. This case, this motion fails on one issue and that’s that you lost a trial that you were so convinced that you were going to win. Totally frustrating for me” – Lunsford
- “I will reiterate that there are not text messages between me and these two. I swear to god.” – Lunsford
- “It appears to me — [he is] trying to curry a favor with the court, maybe in anticipation of her sentence, by saying, oh, come on, you know — the things he was saying about our office were highly disparaging and very easily interpreted as trying to ask you [J. Lunsford], hey, I got a raw deal on this trial, so you know, throw me one on the sentencing What he admits in his own verification is that he is saying you in ex parte setting — he admits he was complaining to the Court his dissatisfaction with the trial, complaining about his dissatisfaction with the DA’s behavior during the trial, and complaining about the DA’s office generally.” – SPM
- “You have a duty of candor to this court and — you do not shake your head no! — because you have also accosted mutual friends of ours and said the same thing and you know it. That’s a rule. That’s a rule – that’s a violation of your rules of professional responsibility.” – Lunsford
- I mean, this — I don’t know if the press is here or not but if not, you know, they may want to print this. I mean, this is absolutely unacceptable, you know, to have these allegations leveled” -SPM
The following afternoon, October 31, 2014, the participants of this hearing appeared in court and sentenced McClure to 10-20 years in prison for aggravated assault, simple assault, two counts of endangering the welfare of a child and reckless endangerment. Substantial and reputable legal opinion outside this trial opine that this sentence was far more severe than what can reasonably expected to any defendant convicted of the charges McClure was convicted of.
Weeks after the attack in court on his motion, Bernie, with the assistance of his friend, received the cell phone records that proved his instincts were spot on. One must wonder if he doubted himself, second guessed himself, or regretted his actions during the tense wait. Regardless, the records revealed the ugly truth. I hope he smiled when he read them. I hope he felt validated and vindicated, and that he felt brave, because he was.
The records, obtained by Bernie, revealed the following:
- 419 text messages were exchanged between Judge Lunsford and the District Attorney’s office from the start of jury selection to the start of trial
- 178 text messages were exchanged between Lunsford and the District Attorney’s office throughout the course of the McClure trial
- 100 of the text messages exchanged throughout the trial occurred while Lunsford was seated and jury was in the box
- 317 text messages were exchanged between Judge Lunsford and the District Attorney’s office after the conclusion of the McClure trial.
Bernie, subsequent to sentencing, filed a motion for his client to receive a new trial. He detailed the Court’s transparently unfair handling of the experts, the evidence suppression and admission rulings at trial, the questionable impartiality of the rulings at trial, and through post-conviction and subsequent sentencing hearing. And of course, he was now able to include the phone records evidencing the shockingly extensive ex parte communication that had occurred between the court and the DA’s office.
“The court abused its discretion when it imposed an aggregate sentence of ten to twenty years, a sentence in excess of the range for aggravated assault.”
A maximum sentence for the charges pursuant to sentencing guidelines is 12 months.
McClure received 10-20 years after Bernie’s motion for recusal was heard. It was unjustly severe. While McClure sits in jail, her motion for a new trial is up on appeal. One can only surmise that the sentence imposed by the court was unduly harsh due to Bernie’s allegations (which were later validated). One can only reasonably conclude that the severity of this sentence came with the same irrationality that Bernie faced when he exposed the corruption. One can only conclude that when the Court imposed this sentence they were not aware that the truth would be exposed or that Bernie would come to possess their cell phone records. One can only conclude that they imposed this sentence in hopes of discouraging him from ever questioning the integrity of the judicial member or the DA office in the future. One can only conclude that this harsh sentence was a deterrent measure that was imposed before they knew the records would vindicate and validate the attorney bringing the allegations, and the shameful truth that they so desperately seemed to seek to hide.
After Bernie, several lawyers followed suit. Several similar Right to Know requests were filed in separate cases, which also revealed further ex parte communications.
As a result of Bernie Cantorna’s motion, monumental events were set in place:
- Judge Lunsford announced his resignation in the late summer of 2015.
- Several more attorneys filed Right to Know requests and appeals for their clients who were unfairly treated and had their constitutional rights violated by the communications between judges and prosecutors, which violated their federal and constitutional rights to a fair and impartial jury trial. These victims are awaiting appeals for new trials.
- A county rallied behind the principle of justice and started a grassroots movement, demanding fairness and equal treatment for all Americans who face judicial proceedings for criminal charges.
- The Attorney General’s office conducted grand jury proceedings: in secret and headed by disbarred, criminally-charged and known political ally/personal friend of SPM, AG Kathleen Kane.
- The Bellefonte Police Department instigated a criminal investigation and the DA office was raided. Further illegal activities of the DA were uncovered.
- A social movement began in which people began taking notice of the corrupt and criminal activities of the DA. A community banded together in cooperation and continuation of these efforts, and this movement fights on today.
Bernie represents people who have been seriously injured or killed as a result of preventable negligence, or individuals facing charges with serious crimes. He holds two of the largest verdicts ever awarded in Centre County including a $16.5 verdict for a Plaintiff whose life was devastated as a result of professional negligence. He is a fighter for the downtrodden, the accused, the hopeless, the hurt and the families of the dead. In a historically dark chapter of Centre County, Bernie is a beacon of hope as he shows us that there are still quiet heroes walking among us, heroes who can be counted on to do the right thing, to fight selflessly and without fear on our behalf. I don’t know Bernie at all and I have never met him, but given his actions, I would personally hire this lawyer without hesitation if, God forbid, I was ever in need.
Bernie Cantorna is a State College lawyer who has been practicing for almost 30 years.