Reading tea leaves
Handicapping the Philadelphia church sex-abuse verdict
Reading tea leaves
Court reporters inevitably spend a lot of time waiting to see what a jury does.
And when the jury doesn’t, or sends out messages that imply something has gone awry, the handicapping begins. What does it mean? Or, it has to mean this. Or that. The more cynical talk of starting a pool on the eventual verdict.
Consider last week’s verdict in the child sex-abuse trial of the Rev. Charles Engelhardt and former parochial school teacher Bernard Shero.
Engelhardt, 66, and Shero, 49, were charged with sexually assaulting a 10-year-old altar boy in 1998 and 1999 at St. Jerome’s parish and school in Northeast Philadelphia.
The charges against each man were almost identical. Engelhardt, 66, a priest for more than 40 years and an assistant pastor at St. Jerome’s, was accused of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, child endangerment, corruption of a minor, indecent assault and conspiracy. Shero, 49, a former sixth-grade English teacher at St. Jerome’s parish school, was charged with rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, child endangerment, corruption of a minor and indecent assault.
After nine days of testimony, the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court jury of eight men and four women began deliberations the afternoon of Jan. 25. About 19 hours later, shortly after 1 p.m. on Wednesday, the jury sent word that they had reached a verdict on all counts except one charge against one defendant.
On that single count, the jury said, it was deadlocked.
The consensus among reporters and lawyers was that the jury could not reach a decision on the conspiracy charge against Engelhardt. There was a certain logic at work. Conspiracy was a charge the two defendants did not have in common.
Prosecutors had charged the veteran priest with conspiracy, alleging that Engelhardt and another priest who lived at St. Jerome’s rectory – the Rev. Edward V. Avery – had discussed sexually molesting the boy and, with Shero, has essentially “passed him around.”
Avery, now 70 and defrocked, had been charged with Engelhardt and Avery in February 2011 but pleaded guilty last year and was sentenced to 2-1/2 to 5 years in prison. He returned to testify at the trial of Engelhardt and Shero and stunned many observers by insisting he did not molest “Billy Doe,” did not know the boy, never talked to Engelhardt about molesting him and did not know Shero. He said he pleaded guilty solely to escape a longer prison term.
So it made sense to some observers that the jury was stuck on the conspiracy count. Alas, that logic was lost on the jurors. After giving it a few more minutes of deliberations the jury came back and found Engelhardt guilty of all charges except the involuntary deviate sexual intercourse charge. Shero was found guilty of all five charges.
So what happened? Hard to say. The 12 jurors were kept in the jury room until after the proceedings were over to talk with Judge Ellen Ceisler. They seemed to have left the city’s Criminal Justice Center from other than the public entrance on Filbert Street. Bedeviled by the problem of witness and victim intimidation and the fear defendants or their partisans will try to influence a jury, Philadelphia’s court system makes it difficult to talk with jurors. During jury selection, especially in high-profile cases, jurors are referred to by number, not by name. After the trial, court officials resist releasing jurors’ names. In murder cases, Philadelphia court officials flat-out deny requests for the jurors’ names.
Some lawyers familiar with the case say they believe the jury deadlocked on the IDSI charge – court jargon for the sex count against Engelhardt – because it was the one allegation by the victim that was not mentioned in the notes of Andrew Snyder, the detective for the District Attorney’s office who interviewed Billy Doe. As for the conspiracy charge, jurors could have believed Avery’s recantation was an attempt to do a favor for his fellow priest, who lived across the hall from Avery in the St. Jerome’s rectory.
Assistant District Attorney Mark Cipolletti, who prosecuted the case with Evangelia Manos, said after the verdict that he believed it was impossible to get inside the thinking of the jurors. Unless one or more jurors come forward to discuss the stalemate in the jury room, the question is unlikely to be answered.
After more than 25 years watching trials and juries, I'm sure of one thing: predicting a jury’s verdict is usually the longest of long shots.