A crucial job function of any trial attorney’s office is to coordinate the appearance of witnesses. This means prepping them to testify, getting them on board with the case and most importantly not “losing” a witness at the last minute, (in a scattered crisis), during the umpteenth hour (night before or day of) a jury trial. Its stunningly reckless and irresponsible.
Lawyers in private practice tend to be hyper vigilant on keeping in regular communications with crucial witnesses that potentially could make or break their case. This type of diligence is NOT considered “above and beyond” but a basic function of their operation. They gather several emergency numbers from witness families, they spend time with their witnesses and have their office spend time with those witnesses to establish trust and ensure a level of comfort while testifying. They develop intimacy and put thought and effort into the preparations.
Kelly Callihan somehow thinks this witness cultivation part of the business is beyond the scope of her job duties in her privileged position, and she took to the media to complain about it after several debacles of “losing” witnesses and failing to alert or announce to the court until the date of trial. Most private attorneys in private practice, are hyper aware of the location and every type of communication line available in the weeks leading up to a slated trial. Hostile witnesses are turned cooperative early on, and in the days leading up to trial each witness patiently explained the importance of their word to a case. Without being coached, they are carefully romanced and the relationship is cultivated to establish trust, because court (for anyone) can be a very frightening place. People fear courts, even as third party material witnesses.
After charges are filed in homicide cases or shooting incidents, prosecutors trying to get a conviction for those responsible are having a difficult time locating witnesses and getting them to testify in court.
The issue of finding a witness in private practice is generally not a “day of court” crisis. Usually the problem of a missing witness is identified weeks out, and the scramble occurs in the privacy of that office, without any involvement or inconvenience to trial Judge. I can’t think of a single case where I have ever seen a plaintiff’s attorney walk into court and say “oops we can’t find our witness.” It’s amateur, disgraceful, disorganized and admonish-able behavior. It shows a lack of effort or preparation. Instead, private investigators and social media searches are conducted behind the scenes without inconveniencing the Judge. And responsible lawyers live and breathe for those updates. At worst, continuances to the start date of a trial are requested, and normally without any specific reason except one in vague terms that doesn’t alert the Judge of a crisis or compromise the case to the other side. The administration in the office is rebuked and the case strategy is being replotted feverishly as the search goes on. There is no “oops, the witness didn’t show because I (excuse my language) fucked up.” It’s not really a special process to keep track of witnesses, it’s a natural course of your job function.
“We’ve never dealt with so much of this type of thing,” Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan said in an exclusive interview. She flips her hair and rolls her eyes and acts like this bothersome task of keeping tabs on witnesses and cultivating trust is beyond the scope of her job duties. Like she is being asked to do something above and beyond what the legal community in general does every day. Somehow her elevated status of the county’s highest paid government official makes her royalty and above fulfilling essential functions.
In two homicide trials earlier this month, Callihan’s office had to issue material witness warrants for two people. The DA’s office is looking into whether charging no-show witnesses with default in a required appearance – a misdemeanor – will deter witnesses from absconding.
The “lost” witnesses were announced day of trial (instead of alerting the judicial officer a week back in advance or more). This is SCARY tell tale indication that Callihan doesn’t prep witnesses, doesn’t bother to establish trust, and doesn’t communicate at all with them….. and then three years down the line she takes a three year old address, serves a subpoena on a witness at an invalid address, and boom, shows up to court the next day and tells the Judge “Oooooops we couldn’t find him/her.” Its the essence of a junior varsity player, and one irresponsible lawyer who clearly does not care about the subject “victim” of her case, or the moving parts of the case nearly enough to prepare in a timely manner. It’s Callihan showing up for class screeching about how the dog ate her homework. It’s cringe worthy to even read about.
Callihan, in a news conference that I can only characterize as misleading and absurd, talks about how stressful these “long lost” witnesses are, as they “hold up trial,” because the first time she discovers their missing is when they don’t show up for a subpoenaed date. She characterizes all witnesses as potential criminals, which likely scares them and immediately alienates them as an ally willing to get up and honestly relay material facts.
She flips her hair and whines: It’s extremely stressful for prosecutors, who Callihan said go into “crisis management mode” to locate missing witnesses in time or locate other witnesses to boost the case without holding up trial. This scenario she portrays as the norm, and appears flippant and exasperated. She wants a witness she hasn’t spoken to in 2-3 years to show up blindly on a paper subpoena, with no preparation and likely great anxiety over the prospect of testifying, and the legal implications they don’t fully grasp or understand. There should be no “crisis mode”, these are rudimentary processes of well functioning law office and lawyer(s) who take responsibility and pride in the end product of their work.
“They’re assuring us they’re going to come,” Callihan protests, at the last minute to a courtroom full of people waiting. When probed further, the answer is “Well, they promised me two years ago they would come.” She, nor anyone in her office has had further communication with the witness since. Two years down the line she can’t even produce an emergency contact. “It’s very stressful,” she insists.
After several huge embarrassments like this in front of Judges, Callihan (red faced) went to the news again. She had a new tactic, she announced defiantly. What was it? Anyone who didn’t show up she was going to jail for contempt and the sentences would be HARD. Her pending witnesses probably shut down right then and their, sure they would show up to avoid jail but they would do the bare minimum and avoid her as much as they could till the date.
Things began to come heated during Commonwealth vs. Aaron Mack, and the new Hitler-esque contempt of court threats. Witnesses appeared but they were distant, monotone, fearful and lackluster. They showed up out of fear of jail, not to tell their story. It was clear they had no preparation and were very uncomfortable interacting with Callihan.
The homicide trial was before Judge Tamara Bernstien, who notably was a former Assistant District Attorney (Kelly Callihan had been her boss). Ashley Stiffler (in her early 20s, approximately) was a CRUCIAL witness in convicting Mack. The paper subpoena went out 48 hours or less before she was to appear, nobody in Callihan’s office had seen or heard from her since their initial witness interview years ago.
Ashley Stiffler was a material witness, who was present outside the building minutes before the murder had occurred. Callihan stood up apprehensive with the tension, and she explained her office had no contact with the witness and wasn’t sure if she would show. She proceeded to then gesture at a row of law enforcement behind her and explain how they had lost the witness. In a move of cowardice and fear for her reputation she passed the blame. I can only all but imagine that law enforcement was less than amused at being thrown under the bus, for certain. They had shown up prepared to testify, folders in hand, studied and prepared to let the District Attorney run the show. Such was expected and routine. After finishing charging the case and finishing the investigation, their role wasn’t witness location or witness prep. Their role was to appear at trial prepared to testify, which they had. The lawyer’s role is witness prep.
The second most important witness in the Mack trial was a guy named Massai Dickey, who showed up utterly terrified and refused to testify. The word hostile is not a good word to describe this prosecution’s witness. He just shut up and wouldn’t cooperate, asking publicly on the record several times if he was to be remanded to jail for showing up late. He had no reason to fear testifying honestly, and he wasn’t apparently afraid of anything but the prosecutor herself.
Callihan continued to bomb, with a stuttering and awkward abreviated trial. The Altoona Mirror was interested but she was beligerant and short when questioned about the missing witness. Ms. Stiffler will be facing jail when we find her.
Judge Bernstein (Callihan’s former employee) was also aware of the debaucle and the presence of the media during a high profile media case, which was turning out to be quite embarrassing. So of course when Stiffler was finally at long last located, the jail sentence was harsh. It had been several changes of addresses, and she hadn’t even known about the trial till a relative had seen her face on a wanted poster on TV and informed her she was an outlaw. Still the damage was done, Callihan had almost lost the case, and Stiffler had been the critical witness, so Stiffler got quite a tough jail sentence.
Then there was critical witness Porcha Roebuck, who also came up missing and it was announced day of trial. Nobody had been in contact with her for months and nobody had reached out to her except on the last umpteenth hour on the eve of trial in attempt to serve a paper subpoena to an address she hadn’t lived at for nearly over a year.
It was yet another critical prosecution witness missing in a high profile murder case and yet another horrifically embarrassing mishap. It was the same waiting game as they waited for the witness to appear after unserved subpoena, and Callihan sitting their drumming up excuses to feed the Altoona Mirror.
The witness did not appear, and Callihan had been yet again publicly embarrassed and the media was asking all sorts of rude and uncomfortable questions. Callihan again issued a wanted poster, and a massive manhunt ensued. This time she was successful in locating the witness before the end of trial, who indicated in testimony she had never been served and had no idea she was supposed to appear.
She showed up in a prison jump suit, and was clearly angry and hurt, even shocked, by the sheer embarrassment of the situation, and her face all over the press as if she were a common criminal. She was enraged in fact, and rightfully so. She testified that she was abruptly taken from her home where she stayed with her children and the entire ordeal had been shocking, embarrassing and unexpected, and in the end life altering. She hadn’t worn prison garb before and here she was humiliated. Tearful, her memories of the night of the murder took second stage to what looked to be a vulnerable woman stunned by the situation. A spectator noted that looks on the jury panel’s faces were that of horror and disgust.
The jury found the homicide defendant not guilty on all charges, a full acquittal after only a very short deliberation. It was yet another devastating blow over this “lost” witness confusion day of trial. When a witness is finally located and bullied or threatened with jail to testify, the case ended in acquittal. The key material witness in the case had an emotional melt down. The jury was not immune to reading the impalpable fear of a shivering witness interacting with Callihan, the fear was overpowering obscuring any ability to articulate clearly. The witness was fuddled, unprepared, confused and very afraid. Callihan was rude and defiant, hostile and arrogant in responding to the press in the aftermath.
But even worse than losing crucial material witnesses, Callihan began also losing actual victims (people who she purportedly represented) and who were fearful of this new gestapo-like “contempt” policy and became hostile or afraid of showing up to court. She of course had also failed to cultivate any meaningful or grounded relationships with the victims, and failed to establish regular communication. Callihan said she’s also seen an increase in cases where victims also disappear, fearing that seeking justice will make them targets.
Stay tuned, I have some exposing news about Judge Tamara Bernstein that will really get you riled up. It involves the ACLU and a royal hot mess.
Callihan is currently under investigation for misuse of drug forfeiture monies and that issue of misconduct (theft) is pending a ruling by the Honorable Judge Krumenacker.
Cambria County continues to be the leading county IN THE ENTIRE STATE for opioid epidemic fatalities. The election for Cambria County District Attorney is 2019, and Cambria County needs someone to step up and run.