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Williams takes on the courts, prosecutor

Published: Sun, January 16, 2011 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Bertram de Souza (Contact)

It was a shot across the bow of the Mahoning County criminal justice system — and it came out of the blue.

Indeed, the setting for Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams’ attack on the Common Pleas Court and the county prosecutor’s office only added to the intrigue. But, why did Williams choose his annual soiree to take on general division judges R. Scott Krichbaum, James C. Evans, Maureen A. Sweeney, John M. Durkin and Lou A. D’Apolito, and the county’s chief lawyer, Paul Gains?

It should be pointed out that the mayor did not name names, but it doesn’t take a doctoral degree to figure out who he was talking about.

Williams, who is in his second four-year term as the city’s chief executive, used the word dysfunction to describe the county’s criminal justice system. He told the gathering of friends, well-wishers and the usual gaggle of politicians at the Mayor’s Community Cele-bration at Stambaugh Auditorium that he will accept responsibility for aspects of the dysfunction that occur within the city, and then he let loose with this volley:

“But I won’t take responsibility for the failures and indifference of the criminal justice system outside of the city, in Mahoning County.”

Failures and indifference. Those are fighting words.

Nary a peep

And yet, there has been nary a peep out of the Common Pleas judges and Prosecutor Gains. Why? Because the mayor isn’t the first person to talk about the system in such a derisive manner. In fact, the word dysfunction was originally used by a special master who had been appointed by a federal judge to study the sheriff’s department, the courts and the prosecutor’s office.

The picture he painted wasn’t pretty.

But why would Williams come out swinging now? There are several possible reasons, foremost of which are the high-profile murder cases on the docket this year. Two that are bound to attract national attention are the killings of 80-year-old Angeline Fimognari and 79-year-old Thomas Repchic. Fimognari was shot at point-blank range as she sat in her car in the parking lot of St. Dominic Church on Youngstown’s South Side. Repchic was shot while driving his car on the South Side not far from St. Dominic. He was said to have been the victim of mistaken identity.

Williams, Youngstown Police Chief Jimmy Hughes, and city government in general have been under intense pressure from Youngstown and suburban residents to get a handle on the crime epidemic that continues to define the community.

The murders of Fimognari and Repchic have drawn national news coverage, and so the pressure is on to make sure the cases aren’t dismissed because of errors or incompetence.

As the mayor told the gathering at his annual event, in general, firearm specifications that would result in mandatory sentences must not be dismissed and high-level felonies should not be plea-bargained down.

“It’s time for fewer plea bargains, more trials, stiffer sentences and more accountability,” he said.

His underlying message to the judges and the prosecutor was clear: Don’t drop the ball.

It’s possible that a recent story about the nine capital cases on the docket caught the mayor’s attention because Gains isn’t the lead prosecutor in any of them. Dawn Cantalamessa, chief trial lawyer in the criminal division, will be in charge.

Should the public read anything into Gains’ decision not to take on the Fimognari and Repchic cases?

The mayor’s criticism of the criminal justice system during his party must have come as a surprise to the attendees.

Auto czar

Many were expecting an announcement by Hizzoner that he has been offered the job of U.S. auto czar in the Obama administration and that he is heading to Washington. The announcement never came. Williams has publicly acknowledged that he has had conversations with high-ranking Department of Labor officials about the job, and there are unconfirmed reports that background checks have been conducted.

But, there has been no word from on high, which may explain his grouchy mood. Perhaps the judges and prosecutor will give him a recommendation.

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