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Locking the courthouse door is no assurance of a fair trial

Published: Sun, September 12, 2010 @ 12:00 a.m.

A defendant’s right to a fair trial and the need for courts in a free country to operate openly often come into conflict. And it is the obligation of a judge to balance those competing interests, using all the tools at his disposal.

That doesn’t appear to be happening in what’s come to be called the Oakhill case.

The case involves indictments against high-profile individuals, including two current county officeholders, and principals in one of the area’s most prominent private companies.

They have been accused in a multi-count indictment of having conspired to prevent or delay the move of the Mahoning County Department of Job and Family Services from a former shopping plaza owned by the Cafaro Co. to Oakhill Renaissance Place, a former hospital now owned by Mahoning County.

Some lawyers, and maybe even some judges, would like to restrict public access only to that evidence that is eventually introduced in court. But that’s not the tradition that is honored by our open court system. Unlike some countries, where even the name of someone charged with a crime is sealed pending conviction or exoneration, or others in which the fate of a citizen is determined entirely behind closed doors, we in the United States have found that open is better.

Unusually high interest

In most cases, of course, the public has little interest in the background mechanizations of the court. But not this time. The defendants in these cases are: Anthony M. Cafaro Sr., retired president of the Cafaro Co.; his sister, Flora Cafaro, part-owner of the Cafaro Co.; the Cafaro Co. and two of its affiliates, the Ohio Valley Mall Co. and the Marion Plaza Inc.; county Commissioner John A. McNally IV; county Auditor Michael V. Sciortino; former county Treasurer John B. Reardon; John Zachariah, the former county Job and Family Services director, and Atty. Martin Yavorcik, who made an unsuccessful run for county prosecutor.

People want to know details of how the officers of influential companies doing business with the county interact with county officials elected to work in the public’s interest .

Judge William H. Wolff Jr. of Kettering, who has been assigned to preside over the case, has set the trial to begin nine months from now. The implication of an order he signed last week is that until then, details of what the prosecution has uncovered will be sealed. He’s doing this in the stated interest of protecting the purity of the jury pool.

Presumption goes too far

His action, however, presumes that normal access to court documents would poison the jury pool, depriving the defendants of a fair trial.

The extent to which any pretrial publicity has affected any prospective juror’s ability to remain impartial is something that is routinely examined during jury selection. And if it becomes obvious that 12 impartial jurors cannot be found in Mahoning County, the court has an option of changing venue.

Judge Wolff was assigned from outside the area to hear the case in the interest of impartiality. If it is necessary to take the trial outside the area in the interest of impartiality — and the need for that is by no means certain — it can be done.

It is more than a little disconcerting that all discussion about blocking public access to future filings was done, itself, behind closed doors.

This is not a federal case. In federal prosecutions the complaint is often heard that unless the defendant has extraordinary resources, he or she is almost certainly outgunned by the U.S. Justice Department.

In this case, however, there are five special prosecutors representing the state and the Ohio Ethics Commission. They are outnumbered almost 3-1 by a panoply of defense lawyers, some local, others from Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Boston and New York City.

While it is true that prosecutors represent the state, and therefore the people, their focus is on winning a criminal conviction, not on preserving the public’s right to know.

Broader considerations

It falls to the judge to recognize all the various competing interests, not necessarily only those that are being argued in front of him by specific advocates at any one time. When he chooses to close the door to his chambers and to give only two sides a hearing, transparency goes out the window.

Judge Wolff said this is the most complicated case he has ever tried in his long and varied career. He estimates testimony will take three months, which means a year from now, facts will still be in dispute, and some facts may never come to light.

It is unreasonable to expect the public to remain in the dark, especially when two of the accused remain on the public payroll.

In the judicial tool bag that Judge Wolff has at his disposal, he reached in and grabbed a sledge hammer. Before he crushes the public’s right to know, he should reconsider and find a more suitable tool.


1escapee(43 comments)posted 5 years ago

Visiting Judges (not accountable for their actions) have repeatedly shown Ohio, that they are appointed to protect the corrupt in Ohio.

Remember the justice afforded Cafaro's friends (FLASK, GOLDBERG).

Somethings never change in Ohio because the corrupt are the ones appointing visiting judges in Ohio. Corruption isn't just local.

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2author50(1121 comments)posted 5 years ago

The Feds will be taking over very quickly and moving this case to Cleveland. Judge Wolff can go back to wherever he came from and sit around his cracker barrel with the other retired state judges, wondering why he ever was picked in the first place.

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3escapee(43 comments)posted 5 years ago

Judge "Crackerbarrel" knows his responsibilities. He has the same game plan as "Crackpot" Markus repeated in your Valley with Federal oversight.

Did Goldberg ever give back the money he stole from Valley victims? Did the Fed's recover the stolen money? No the victims lost everything and the Cafaro's took care of the Goldbergs wtih a "pretend job" for Mrs.Goldberg.

If Cafaro's were such community supporters, the Cafaro's could have helped Goldberg repay his theft rather than give to the Goldberg thieves support and benefits.

Did the Fed's ever look into that business deal?

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4Nunya(1356 comments)posted 5 years ago


Whoever wrote this piece is in tuned with law, public interest and no advocate for corrupting the courts.

Mr, Wolfe just recently retired and his selection was peculiar to begin with. Thus, by the way he's navigating thus far he's posturing just like the Cafaro's friendly bench gift giver Kathleen OMalley,... dual probation for a repeat felon.

To order sealing evidence is concealment of said evidence. Which isn't so much a preserving of a defendants right to a fair trial, as it is merely hiding what evidence is being brought forth to have them defend against.

See in contrast to what Mr. Wolfe is doing. The judges role is to permit or deny articles of evidence to be presented based upon validity and connection with charges.

The Jury is going to deliberate based upon what was allowed to be presented and distinguish guilt or innocence. Based upon prosecutions direct as opposed to defense counsels ability to refute said evidence and testimony presented.

In judicial circles Wolfe has a reputation of being overly defense attorney friendly. For which he's had his fair share of conflicts with the State Bar association being in conflict on both sides of judicial process too.

Here's what he says about himself,.. http://www.mediate.com/ohio/wwolff/in...

Thus in what I'm inclined to believe at this onset. Is what Mr. Wolfe appears to be concerned about is a combination of veiling a verdict and protecting some seats of the accused in upcoming elections.

Not a conspiracy theorist but just like this investigation has been ongoing, the act was committed some time ago. The connection has been established and the pending charges weren't just fabricated.

So to seal evidence with a contention of providing a " fair trail ". Makes absolutely no sense in regards to sanctity of the courts, jurisprudence nor transparency of proceedings.

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5davidjohn(144 comments)posted 5 years ago

why doesnt the vindicator sue the county to make this public

did the prosecutor object to this

is that part of the record

who do you think this helps

maybe sciortino who is on the ballot

details of his actions could be used against him in the campaign

maybe his opponents should file a lawsuit to make the records public

this just seems unamerican

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6muckraker(6 comments)posted 5 years ago

The writer or writers of this editorial don't quite get it. In fact, most of the people who've commented on this issue don't get it. The judge has sealed any future filings because it is the PROSECUTORS who tried to poison the jury pool. Read their first (and only) bill of particulars filed, relating to the charges against Martin Yavorcik and Flora Cafaro. In it, the prosecutors level a despicable ad hominem accusation against other defendants, an accusation without any factual basis. Because this sniping has continued and been fed by the "must be guilty!" attitude of a certain newspaper, the judge wisely decided to cool the PR war. No evidence is being concealed. It is merely being processed by both sides in this case until the time comes to take it into court. It would be wise for everyone observing this case to look more closely and not rush to judgement.

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7Nunya(1356 comments)posted 5 years ago

@ Marcus57

No sooner than you said comments from Joe Bell would soon be waged. Suddenly " Muckraker " appeared with a spin that only the defense would try to peddle,.. unreal.

I'm all for a fair trial and calling things but ole " Muckraker " just seems to insist on the Joe Bell angle,.. LMAO !!!

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8HaydenThomas(208 comments)posted 5 years ago

Nunya is exactly right. Look who suddenly appears but a new poster muckraker (1 comment) who defends the judges actions. Time to shut down Ursuline high school. Obviously, what they are teaching over there isn't in alignment with moral Catholic teachings.

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91970mach1(1005 comments)posted 5 years ago

I would LOVE to read the bill of particulars about this trial TODAY.

However, it is important that they do get a fair trial. If the bill of particulars comes out immediately after jury is selected, I suppose that will satisfy the public's RIGHT to know. I sure hope the judge doesn't play games after that, though.

Sciortino may gain the most from this being all of the specific ALLEGATIONS against him will not be made public until after the election. Would seem a bit unfair to have the bill of particulars made public against him before the election being that the trial, where he'll get his chance to rebut the charges, won't be until after the election.

Of course, if the bill of particulars is weak, it could benefit him to have them come out before the trial.

I know everyone wants to hang them all and then have a trial, but they are presumed innocent until proven guilty. So let's have a trial, and if they are proven guilty, then hang them.

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10muckraker(6 comments)posted 5 years ago

You people are pathetic. You think yours is the only opinion that counts? You don't think I've been here before? Listen, boys, it's time to stop playing the old class-warfare game grudge game and take a cold, hard look at who's trying to manipulate this whole Oakhill situation. Read the documents and look at who's been trying to lead the witch hunt. If people are guilty of crimes, then they will be exposed in court and punished. But if there are no crimes proven, then it's time for the citizens to hold their fine elected officials to account.

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11Nunya(1356 comments)posted 5 years ago

Oh brother,..

Will ya just listen to ole " muckracker " here,.. LMAO !!!

Where to be fair I'll briefly relent and cordially ask Hayden, Marcus or anyone else, if they'd like to redress muckraker / Joe? first,.. LOL !!!

Which is to say be it known " muckraker " that I'll address you like you insist. But it's going to be in such a way, that the vexed vaudevillian posture you took here. Is one that should have been trumpeted with a chorus of Vuvuzelas,.. ROTFL !!!

In making this announcement of forthcoming redress. Rest assured that the viewership will be vast and for those in anticipation.

As a first I'll guarantee them I'll not disappoint them in proceeding to make a bigger mockery out of you than you managed yourself,..

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12Nunya(1356 comments)posted 5 years ago

@ davidjohn

Lets address some things,..

First and foremost that posture unquestionable shields the indicted and does no favor for the prosecution.

Secondly it's within Mr. Wolfe's judicial right to invoke it. However, this isn't a speedy trial and the rumors, speculation has been looming for years now.

So to quash the fair and or unfair rumors, and speculative thoughts that spawns inaccurate innuendo. The process should be of transparency to allow the record of formal charges to be distinguished.

See now what it says is those charges are so well based and supportive evidence so strong. That the indicted privately or openly petitioned to have them sealed.

Where to me beyond un-American, is a indefensible dis-service to those whom have been fleeced in this ordeal. See this Oakhill ordeal is the only one being tried right now.

However, you can best believe they've done far more than what they're defending against now.

See for Cafaro to have recently gotten caught trying to buy an election, prior to being discovered as the owner of James Tsagaris and Maureen Cronin speaks volumes.

To include trying to sue the county on frivolous merit that cost the taxpayers money and resources. Is a precedent in display of manner and conviction that as retaliatory posture amounted to calculable extortion and intimidation.

See that came after Reardon McNally and Scirotino ran to confer with Cafaro about it all. Which clearly deemed they regarded the taxpayers as of no interest or consequence to address.

So see to start suppressing transparency now is actions taken by Mr. Wolfe. That doesn't correlate to what he's contending at all.

In fact and to the contrary his actions reeks of laying the ground work for some plea deals to be reach. Which in that case the public would never know all the evidence that was available to prosecute them with.

See THAT'S what I'm looking at and there's not a being on earth. Whom can discount what I'm stating as relevant, plausible and of factual accordance for where I'm drawing inference.

This case should have clearly been bound over to federal courts. On the basis of the magnitude, nature and influence. That all of the indicted has displayed and holds upon a municipality.

To which bringing in a retired individual to perch that assumes no judicial recourse doesn't preclude that.

Outside of this gig he's a private practice attorney that has a price and has no more legal stature than that of a Marc Dann per se.

For which via the peculiar way he's proceeding I think he's just showing that,.. even prior to trial.

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