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Detroit man to be tried, though he is absent



Published: Wed, October 25, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



Police could not find the Detroit man.

By LAURE CIOFFI

VINDICATOR PENNSYLVANIA BUREAU

NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- It has been five days since anyone has heard from James Brooks, but that hasn't stopped his trial from proceeding in Lawrence County Common Pleas Court.

Judge Tom Piccione ruled Tuesday the trial would be held "in absentia," or without Brooks present. The judge issued an arrest warrant Monday for Brooks, 39, of Detroit.

Brooks is accused of being the leader of a Detroit group that, since 2003, took over crack cocaine sales in New Castle.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett alleges the group is responsible for $2 million worth of crack cocaine sales.

Brooks is charged with two counts of being part of a corrupt organization; three counts of criminal conspiracy; possession of a controlled substance; possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance; delivery of a controlled substance; and criminal use of a communication facility.

He was released from jail on nominal bond in September after prosecutors failed to bring his case to trial within 180 days of his arrest.

Checking in

He was required to check in daily with a probation officer since his release, and he complied with that order until Sunday, said Michael Ahwesh, deputy attorney general.

Brooks' attorney Philip Berezniak told the judge that he last met and spoke with his client Friday in preparation for the trial.

Ahwesh said city police went to three locations Tuesday morning searching for Brooks and could not locate him.

"At this point, we have absolutely no leads to find him," Ahwesh said.

Berezniak said he has called Brooks and left several messages but received no response.

Judge Piccione denied Berezniak's request for a delay, but he is considering the lawyer's request for a nonjury trial.

Berezniak said Brooks indicated to him during their meetings last week that he did not want a jury trial.

Judge Piccione decided that jury selection should begin Tuesday. The jury pool of about 50 people was advised the trial was expected to last about two or three days.

Must be present

The judge noted that in most cases the defendant must be present and go through questioning before a judge will grant a request for a nonjury trial.

Judge Piccione also denied Berezniak's request to withdraw from the case.

Ahwesh argued that Berezniak, who was hired by Brooks, is the only attorney capable of handling the trial because he has met with the defendant.

Four people expected to go to trial with Brooks entered guilty pleas Monday and are awaiting sentencing.

cioffi@vindy.com




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