By Jeanne Starmack
A vehicular-homicide trial for a woman charged in the death of a pedestrian is delayed, and the third judge on the case has stepped down.
Whitney Yaeger, 20, who police report ran over Dave Muslovski, 55, while he was walking near his Springfield Township home June 17, 2010, was to go on trial Thursday in Struthers Municipal Court.
Yaeger’s lawyer, however, filed a request Sept. 21 asking for the judge in the case, visiting Judge Michael J. McNulty of Barberton, to be disqualified.
Atty. John Juhasz says in an affidavit of disqualification that letters Muslovski family members sent to Judge McNulty swayed his impartiality.
Judge Mark Belinky, presiding judge of Mahoning County Court of Common Pleas, was to rule on the affidavit. He had not done so by Wednesday, the court said, and the trial was postponed.
McNulty, however, voluntarily recused himself. His letter of recusal was filed Thursday.
The Ohio Supreme Court will appoint another judge to the case. The municipal court will wait until that happens before setting another trial date.
Juhasz’s affidavit says that Judge McNulty told counsel at a pretrial in July he was familiar with the case because he had read victim- impact letters sent by Muslovski family members.
Juhasz contends that the letters are more than just victim-impact letters.
“These letters clearly constitute ex parte communications. Judge McNulty failed to disclose to the parties that the letters were attempts to persuade him not to accept a plea agreement, attempts to influence him to do what he could to see that Ms. Yaeger was charged with a felony, and attempts to present him evidence that is not admissible at trial or is disputed by the parties,” the affidavit reads.
Family members have said Yaeger should have been charged with a felony because she was texting when she hit Muslovski, but prosecutors on the case concluded she was correctly charged with a misdemeanor.
The affidavit alleges that a sentencing recommendation by Denise Muslovski, Dave Muslovski’s wife, “became virtually what [Judge McNulty] told counsel he would do.”
The affidavit states that Mrs. Muslovski asked the judge not to accept a plea, but if he felt he had to, she asked for the following: “You are allowed to sentence her up to 6 months in jail. I would like for her to serve a minimum of 3-4 months ... with the last 2-3 months being held over her head for a period of 5 years during which she would have to report monthly for probation. I would like her to lose her driving privileges for the maximum amount of time allowed by law.”
Juhasz contends that at the pretrial hearing, before counsel saw the letters and before Judge McNulty was told any facts in the case, Judge McNulty said he would impose at least half of the possible 180-day jail sentence and would suspend Yaeger’s driver’s license for the maximum amount of time allowable.
“The judge’s pronouncement was an emotional response to the letters the Muslovski family had written,” Juhasz contended.
In his recusal letter, Judge McNulty disputed the affidavit.
“I strongly deny the allegations of bias against the defendant,” he wrote.
“However, in the interest of justice and to avoid the appearance of bias and prejudice ... I hereby recuse myself.”
Judge James Lanzo, who presides over Struthers’ court, recused himself in the beginning because he represented the Muslovski family as an attorney. Visiting Judge Diane Vettori took his place but recused herself after 10 months because she realized her niece knew Yaeger.