The fate of Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., a former Pennsylvania judge who has been charged with racketeering, fraud, money laundering, extortion, bribery and federal tax violations, lies in the hands of the 12-member jury, who began their deliberations Wednesday.
On Wednesday, defense attorney Al Flora said his client, who has been charged with taking $2.8 million in kickbacks for closing down the Luzerne County's only state-run juvenile detention center and handing over harsh sentence to teenagers and sending them to a for-profit detention center, is not guilty of taking any bribes or extorting any money from anyone.
However, Flora acknowledged that Ciavarella took legal finder's fees from a developer and committed tax fraud by not declaring his fees to the IRS.
Flora said his client's only dream was to offer a better detention facility for the juveniles. He (Ciavarella) had one motivation, one goal and one dream. That was to argue for the construction of a new juvenile detention facility owned by the government, the lawyer said, adding that the conditions of the county's aging detention center were deplorable.
Ciavarella and Michael Conahan - two judges of the Court of Common Pleas in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania - have been accused of receiving kickbacks from Robert K. Mericle, the builder and co-owner of two juvenile detention facilities in return for sending juvenile offenders to the facilities, sometimes for minor offenses. In many cases, the young offenders were not even allowed legal representation, which is a constitutional right.
The kids for cash scheme prompted the state Supreme Court to review and throw out thousands of convictions and caught the nation's attention as it highlights the dangerous gap in the juvenile justice systems of many states - children appearing in courts without lawyers.
They have also been charged with trying to extort money from Robert J. Powell, a Luzerne County lawyer and property developer. The detention centers in the eye of the storm are PA Childcare and Western PA Childcare.
Flora said it is impossible that Ciavarella attempted to extort money from Powell by threatening to stop sending children to Powell's detention center unless Powell gave him more money.
Powell, Flora told the jury, is an influential trial lawyer. Ciavarella was portrayed as a diminutive and innocent judge who got caught in a web of lies and deceit.
However, Prosecuting attorney Gordon Zubrod told the jury that the crime of Ciavarella is as clear as daylight. The judge, he said, instead of maintaining the dignity of the public office, knowingly and willingly accepted kickbacks or bribes that amounted to millions of dollars in return for the construction of a juvenile detention facility and sending juveniles there.
Zubrod also said Ciavarella had control over Powell, who ran the detention center, as he had control over the fate of the young offenders as a juvenile judge.
On Wednesday, the jury were given a 13-page verdict slip, 39-count indictment, detailed jury instructions, exhibits and writing materials to use in their decisions. They were also told by U.S. District Judge Edwin M. Kosik that the prosecution have to prove the wrongdoing while the defense was in no obligation to disprove the charges.
Jury deliberations will begin 8:30 a.m. Thursday.