Faces of Northampton County: The Old Guard
Editor’s Note: This is the first in an irregular series called “Faces of Northampton County.” It attempts to explain what county government does, as revealed by the rank-and-file people there. One of its core functions is the back-end of crime. Police make the arrests. What happens next is up to our judicial system.
When a new Northampton County District Attorney takes office is January, there will be no part-time prosecutors left. All 20 assistant DAs will be full-time. The last two part-timers, John Obrecht and Richard Huntington Pepper, are calling it quits after a combined 64 years of service under John Morganelli and before him Don Corriere. They will be replaced by a single full-time prosecutor in an office far different than the one in which they started.
Both veteran lawyers insist the switch to full-time prosecutors is a good thing, but a lot of institutional knowledge will be lost when they leave. The old guard, along with noted criminal defense lawyer Phil Lauer, reluctantly shared some war stories in a recent interview.
On his first day as an assistant DA, Pepper accompanied a raid at the Hawthorne House Bar & Grill in Bethlehem. He recalls that, as cops stormed in, proprietor Francis T. “Goo Goo” Rich was attempting to eat betting slips. Pepper directed police to arrest everyone inside, only to discover later that one of the customers was his mother, a local realtor. She had been eating lunch.
A few years later, while picking a jury, Pepper asked the panel whether any of them knew him.
“I do, I’m your mother,” responded one. The judge excused her, and ordered Pepper to have dinner with her that weekend after she complained he never comes around.
A little less flamboyant than Pepper, Obrecht found himself immersed in interesting and sometimes difficult cases. His first trial involved a tavern robbery in which the defendant assaulted the barmaid and actually knocked her false teeth down her throat.
He has prosecuted murderers, rapists and violent robberies. But he cautioned, “When you’re a prosecutor, you’re job is not necessarily to get convictions, but to do justice.”
Pepper and Obrecht had little time to prepare. More often than not, they would just be handed a file and told to pick a jury.
Defense lawyer Phil Lauer was even in worse shape. As a young lawyer, he’d sit in the well of the court during criminal court, hoping to learn. The late and great Judge Clinton Budd Palmer noticed this, and called Lauer to the bench.
“Mr. Lauer, I’d like you to meet Mr. Jones. He’s your client, and we’re picking a jury at 1:30 pm.”
It was a different time in which there was no discovery (the exchange of information between prosecution and defense) and no plea agreements. Many defendants chose to roll the dice. Jury panels, which often consisted of regulars, would be around the entire week. Trials were the norm, and all three lawyers said it was common to try two and sometimes three cases over the course of just one week.
During these long criminal weeks, all three lawyers honed their trial skills. Some might call them thespians, but Obrecht insists they were really learning the Socratic method. “All knowledge is already there,” said Obrecht. “You just have to ask the right questions.” All three lawyers had ample opportunity to learn while waiting for verdicts to return on many snowy Friday nights.
Today, things are much different. Now there is discovery, and no prosecutor or defense lawyer goes to trial without being fully prepared. Plea agreements with recommended sentences are now the norm. A criminal defendant knows what will happen if he pleads, so there is less incentive to roll the dice. As a result, there are far fewer jury trials.
Though all lawyers agree that many of the changes are an improvement in criminal justice, they all agree that something has been lost with the decline in jury trials. Lauer calls it a “human connection” in which judges, prosecutors, witnesses, jurors, defendants and police all realized we are in this mess called life together. A judge might wear a black robe and be perched higher than anyone else, but underneath all that, his underwear is no different. Underneath the veneer, this human connection often made its presence felt.
Very often, this took the form of humor, particularly from judges who spent a lot of time on the bench.
We all like to sleep, especially on hot afternoons in a stuffy courtroom with no air conditioning. On one occasion, Lauer was questioning a witness and noticed, out of the corner of his eye, that two jurors had fallen asleep during his use of the Socratic method. He approached the bench and asked Judge Palmer whether he had noticed two jurors were asleep.
“Why yes, I have. You’re welcome to wake them up.”
Lauer let them sleep.
The Socratic method even infected Judge Richard D Grifo as well in a case tried by both Lauer and Pepper. Lauer solved that situation by accidentally dropping several law books to the floor.
Perhaps the best example of this human connection was evident in a minor case being prosecuted by Pepper. During the call of the list, in which there were over 100 cases, an elderly man carrying a paper bag stood up when his case was called. He had no lawyer.
“Guilty, your honor,” he said before he could even be asked how he pleaded. “It’s getting cold out there, I have my smokes and all my friends are in jail.”
“How about 30 days?” suggested Judge Palmer.
“Could you make it 60?”
“If you don’t shut up, I’ll put you on probation.”
Laughing at this, Lauer provided another example of the human connection involving, once again, the late Judge Palmer.
Lauer was representing an 85 year-old woman who was unable to stop shoplifting. She had been arrested at least 15 times in the past, and under our enlightened laws today, she’d be shipped off to state prison with little fuss. But Palmer intuitively knew that some seniors are forgetful, and shoplifting is often more a mental illness than a crime.
Looking at this woman sternly, Judge Palmer reminded her that he had told her if he ever saw her again, she’d regret it. “I hereby remand you to the custody of the warden until such time and place as you can be taken to state prison, where you will spend the rest of your natural life.”
As she was slumping into Lauer’s arms, Palmer added, “Just kidding.”
She never shoplifted again.
Judges then even sentenced defendants to one-way bus tickets to New York City, directing prosecutors to pay the fare.
No one disputes that changes in the criminal justice system have been a natural evolution to promote more fairness. The two prosecutors view the district attorney’s office as family.
Though both will continue their private practice, they will miss representing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.