One of the accused is 76 and stooped. Another uses a walker. The third is in a wheelchair.
No one would accuse the defendants in the Bucks County Register of Wills scandal of being a scary-looking lot.
But prosecutors are out to prove that, for years, they promoted a harrowing office culture of intimidation, improper political work, and theft.
The much-anticipated Nov. 28 trial date of longtime Register of Wills Barbara Reilly and two of her top assistants moved a step closer Tuesday at a motion hearing in Bucks County Court.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers engaged in more than two hours of legal jousting over the charges facing Reilly, 75; First Deputy James McCullen, 76; and former Second Deputy Rebecca Kiefer, 65. Much of it centered on defense claims that prosecutors improperly used Reilly's and Kiefer's refusals to answer some grand jury questions in a way that violated their constitutional rights.
"I have never . . . seen a case where there was this level of violations," said Kiefer's lawyer, Robert Goldman, a former federal prosecutor.
Reilly, first elected in 1975, and Kiefer, her longtime right hand, were charged March 4 with theft, conspiracy, official oppression, tampering with records, and other crimes. The charges were recommended in a 240-page investigative grand jury presentment that says workers in Reilly's office were pressured into doing political work and paid for it with public funds.
McCullen faces lesser misdemeanor charges, essentially accused of knowing about the alleged chicanery and going along with it.
A fourth defendant, former administrator Candace Quinn, pleaded guilty or no contest Sept. 14 to charges similar to those facing Reilly and Kiefer. She has not been sentenced and is available to testify at the others' trial.
When called before the grand jury, Reilly and Kiefer repeatedly invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination - more than 30 times between them.
By including those responses in a presentment that the grand jury was asked to approve, Goldman argued, prosecutors so prejudiced the grand jurors that the charges should be dismissed.
Deputy District Attorney Robin Twombly called Goldman's accusation "outrageous" and "offensive and misleading to the court."
Twombly agreed that jurors hearing a criminal trial should not be colored by a witness invoking a Fifth Amendment right, but said that doesn't apply to grand juries.
"They want to equate one to another, and it's just not correct," she told Philadelphia Senior Judge John Braxton, who is hearing the case to avoid conflicts of interest with Bucks County judges.
Braxton did not rule on the motion. He did, however, agree to have all of the charges tried at the same time.
Braxton rejected a defense claim that charges of lesser thefts from a petty-cash box would not overly prejudice trial jurors deciding whether Reilly and Kiefer stole from the public by giving employees comp time for doing political work.
"The court sees a culture being revealed here," Braxton said. "It's a broader picture."