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Secret jury selection held in local Russian adoption death case

A York County judge said information was withheld from court calendar and dockets intentionally.

Daily Record/Sunday News
Posted: 08/31/2011

A jury has been seated in secret for the internationally high-profile case of a York County couple accused of killing their 7-year-old adopted Russian son. The presiding judge said this was done primarily out of fear that coverage by the York Daily Record/Sunday News would taint potential jurors.

Judge John S. Kennedy said information typically available to the public on the court calendar and in the defendants' dockets addressing jury selection was purposefully withheld by agreement between the defense and the prosecution. No public hearing on the issue of jury selection was ever held.

"We know when there is a high-profile case on the docket, the Sunday before jury selection there is usually a big story in the Sunday News," Kennedy said. "That makes it difficult sometimes to find jurors."

The Cravers' arrests drew international attention, as they occurred just as Russia suspended adoptions with the U.S. in April 2010. Russian officials attended the preliminary hearing.

Kennedy said the jury for Michael and Nanette Craver was selected Tuesday from a pool of 59 potential jurors. He said 28 of those jurors said they had heard of the case "but because of the time that has lapsed, only a few remembered any details."

"Had there been a major article in the Sunday paper, we probably would not have gotten a jury," Kennedy said.

Melissa Melewsky, legal counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, said, "Jury selection is public and must be conducted in open court unless there has been a showing of good cause made on the record for closure."

Law experts disagree whether the way jury selection was handled in this case is problematic.

Duquesne University law professor Kenneth Hirsch said he can't think of another instance in which there has been a "sneaky jury selection," but "I can't think of any rule violated by doing so."

However, Melewsky said that for all intents and purposes, jury selection was closed. Anyone who feels it was inappropriate could appeal to a higher court.

"The rules don't change because there's public interest," she said.

Kennedy said Tuesday's jury selection was open to the public, and some members of the public were present. He said he was not sure how they knew of the jury selection.

But, he said, the decision to not publish the fact that jury selection was taking place or that the trial was scheduled for Sept. 6 in the court calendar or defense dockets "was intentional."

"That certainly was an action on my part, and I take full responsibility that it occurred," he said. "I anticipated the papers would not be happy when they found out. I discussed it with my colleagues, and they agreed is was not illegal and not improper."

As of close of business Wednesday, no information about the jury selection or the scheduled start of this trial had been placed into the public record.

Earlier Wednesday, a reporter asked Chief Deputy Prosecutor Tim Barker if he was picking a jury for the Craver case. He said no. When the reporter then asked, if he would be picking a jury, he said no.

Barker then added the district attorney's office had opted not to speak publicly about the case "at all to ensure a fair trial." And he would discuss neither the jury selection nor a trial date.

District Attorney Tom Kearney said Barker is "making all the calls" in the Craver case.

"If the judge is trying to protect the defendants' rights, I think it is inappropriate to comment," Kearney said.

Kennedy said a jury was difficult to pick for the murder trial of Paul Hansen, who was convicted of first-degree murder in July for the shooting death of Melissa Worley Barnes, after "a small story" was printed in the York Daily Record/Sunday News. He said several of the jurors said they read the story the day before jury selection.

Kennedy said he was compelled to go out of county for a jury for Stephen Frankel following media coverage of the former attorney's arrest for allegedly kicking a police officer. Frankel had faced several highly-publicized criminal charges before the court in recent years.

Suzanne Smith, one of Michael Craver's attorneys, said the secrecy was used "because we were hoping to pick a fair jury.

"Sometimes people read the paper and get confused," she said. "It was very apparent from (the Cravers' jury) panel."

Smith said five prospective jurors said they could not "be fair and impartial after what they had read." She said about half the jurors recalled reading something about the case.

The last story on the Cravers that ran in the Daily Record appeared on July 2 and reported that the district attorney's office had withdrawn an intent to seek the death penalty.

Smith said her concern with publicity just before jury selection includes information about evidence or testimony that has been excluded from trial.

"The nature of reporting is that it reveals something that shouldn't be revealed to the jury," she said.

She said there was no overt agreement to hide jury selection from the public, but there was an agreement not to discuss picking a jury with the media. She said she was not involved in any decision to block such information from the public record.

Kennedy said he told jurors not to read or watch any news coverage.

President Judge Stephen P. Linebaugh and York County Clerk of Courts Don O'Shell said they had no specific knowledge Wednesday afternoon that jury selection in the Craver case had taken place or that a jury had been seated Tuesday.

O'Shell, whose office tracks all county criminal cases, also could not explain how information put in the tracking system by his staff was missing in the Cravers' cases.

O'Shell confirmed that, contrary to standard practice, neither a notice of jury selection nor a trial date was on the public court calendar or the Cravers' electronic case files.

As president judge, Linebaugh is responsible for assigning judges to criminal or civil court. He is not involved in the assignment of criminal cases to judges. He said he noticed jurors in the courthouse and was aware that the Craver case was coming up, but he didn't give it any more thought.

At a glance

Michael and Nanette Craver, of Carroll Township, are charged with first- and third-degree murder, endangering the welfare of a child and conspiracy in the death of their 7-year-old adopted Russian son, Nathaniel.

Nathaniel died Aug. 25, 2009, from injuries that experts said he suffered during a beating. An autopsy revealed more than 80 injuries, including 20 to his head, and the boy was emaciated, according to medical experts.

The Cravers were charged in Nathaniel's death in April 2010. Initially, the prosecution sought the death penalty against the couple; however, the death penalty was taken off the table in July because prosecutors concluded that "substantial evidence existed" that mitigating circumstances could prevent a jury from sentencing the Cravers to death if they are convicted.

U.S.-Russia relations

Nathaniel Craver's death in 2010 was one of two cases involving adoptions from Russia that preceded that nation blocking of all adoptions to the United States.

Russia suspended adoptions after a mother from Tennessee put her 7-year-old adopted son on a plane and sent him back to Russia because, she said, he had "severe psychopathic issues."

Russian officials attended the Michael and Nanette Cravers' preliminary hearing on April 29, 2010, and said afterward that they were particularly concerned by allegations that the couple had neglected Nathaniel Craver well before his fatal injuries.

"Russia is following the case very closely," Alexey Veselovskiy of Russia's NTV said at the time.

The U.S. and Russia signed a new adoption treaty in July that gives Russia more oversight of adopted children once they are brought to the U.S.

Change of venue cases

If a court is concerned that an impartial jury cannot be found in the county where a crime occurred, the judge can move the trial to another county. That is called a change of venue. The judge can also bring in a jury from another county. That is called a change of venire.

Here is a sample of some criminal cases where changes of venue or venire were requested:

Jordan Wallick: Accused of killing law student James Wallmuth III in a city park in July 2010. Venue request denied, prosecution pending.

Joanna Seibert: Convicted of homicide by vehicle for the Oct. 21, 2008, highway death of Northern York County Regional Police Officer David Tome. Venue request deferred, York County jury seated.

Nigel Maitland: Convicted of first-degree murder for the May 10, 2010 drive-by shooting that killed 9-year-old Ciara "CeCe" Savage. Venue request denied.

Biagio Scotto: Acquitted of rape in a retrial in 2010. Scotto had fled the county after being convicted in 2005. Following his capture in England he was granted a retrial. Venue request for retrial denied.

Robert "Buck" King: Accused of the 2006 murder of Juan Laboy. King had previously been convicted of third-degree murder for the Aug. 30, 2007, murder of Kyree "Mir" White. Venue request was denied for Laboy homicide. Charges were withdrawn.

Toby Taylor: Convicted of third-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment in March 2009, for the Jan. 23, 2008, electrocution of his wife, Kirsten Taylor. Venue request denied.

Stephen Frankel: Acquitted of aggravated assault on a police officer in 2009. Sought venue change because he was convicted of misappropriation of funds and his father, Mark D. Frankel, was convicted of 58 counts of theft in 2006 for embezzlement from their law firm. Change of venire request granted. The jury was picked in Montgomery County and brought to York County. Noel Gomez: Found guilty but mentally ill in June 2007 for the November 2004 parking lot shooting of Julia Cook, a pregnant New York woman. Venue request deferred, York County jury seated.

Glen Rock dump truck crash: Three defendants charged with the deaths of Michelle Moser and her 11-year-old daughter, Amber McArdle, when a Blossom Valley Farms truck crushed their car on April 11, 2003. Venue request denied.

York City Police Officer Henry Schaad murder case: Stephen D. Freeland and Leon "Smickle" Wright were convicted of second-degree murder in 2003 for the 1969 shooting of the officer during race rioting. Venue request denied.

Lillie Belle Allen murder case: Nine men were convicted in 2002 of charges ranging second-degree murder to conspiracy to commit an unlawful act for the 1969 murder of the South Carolina visitor. Mayor Charlie Robertson, a former city police officer, was acquitted of all charges. Venue request deferred. York County jury seated.

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