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‘Careless indifference’

Judge dismisses assistant prosecutor from murder case

Assistant Prosecutor Dawn Cantalamessa is shown during a recent hearing in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court.

YOUNGSTOWN — In removing Assistant Prosecutor Dawn Cantalamessa from the Lavontae E. Knight aggravated murder case Monday, Judge John Durkin of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court said she showed “careless indifference to ascertaining the truth” and made a false statement to the court.

The judge noted that Cantalamessa “failed to periodically and regularly review her case file.” Had she called detective Michael Lambert about evidence in the case in 2019 or 2020, she would have discovered that evidence helpful to the defense regarding a failed photo lineup never made it to the defendant’s attorney as required, the judge stated in a ruling.

“This failure, especially given the defendant’s repeated requests for additional evidence concerning the eyewitness, can best be characterized as a careless indifference to ascertaining the truth,” the judge stated in the ruling.

The judge also found that Cantalamessa made a false statement during a Dec. 3, 2019, hearing because she told Durkin and defense attorney David Betras that co-defendant George Gutierres never identified Knight as being the shooter in the killing.

But in April 2019, Gutierres did identify Knight as the shooter — in a meeting with Cantalamessa, Assistant Prosecutor Michael Rich and Gutierres’ attorney, the ruling states. That conversation was part of a plea agreement with Gutierres that required Gutierres to cooperate with prosecutors.

Prosecut-ors should have told Betras and the judge and about Gutierres’ statements because she was obligated to do it under court rules and the Code of Professional Conduct, Durkin stated.

“She made a false statement of a material fact to this court,” the judge wrote.

He also found that Cantalamessa’s conduct regarding what she told Gutierres’ defense was improper, saying she should have provided evidence regarding the failed photo lineup to Gutierres’ attorney.

“To leave this conduct unchecked would undermine the integrity of our system of justice,” the judge said of Cantalamessa’s actions. “Achieving fair outcomes is perhaps the single most important function of criminal proceedings.”

THE CASE

Knight is accused of killing Josh Donatelli, 26, at Donatelli’s home on Imperial Street on the West Side on Oct. 25, 2018.

Knight’s trial is currently set to begin Aug. 9. But with Cantalamessa removed, it’s not known whether the trial will be postponed. Durkin scheduled a 10:30 a.m. Wednesday pretrial hearing where the trial date is likely to be discussed.

Durkin scheduled hearings in June and again last Friday to hear evidence on a motion by Betras asking for Cantalamessa to be removed or for charges against Knight to be dismissed because of what he called deceit by Cantalamessa.

The judge refused to dismiss the charges.

When The Vindicator asked Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains about the ruling, he said: “We will comply with the court’s order, and we have instructed the lawyers to periodically contact the detectives on their cases for any updates so they can be received and forwarded to defense counsel to avoid something like this happening again.”

Gains said he believes the case still can proceed Aug. 9 as far as his office is concerned. Rich also is part of the prosecution team, and another assistant prosecutor will replace Cantalamessa, Gains said.

During Friday’s hearing, city police detective Lambert testified that police showed an eyewitness a photo lineup of six men, including Knight, in January 2019, but the witness could not identify Knight as being one of the two men involved in Donatelli’s death.

Betras was never told about the failed lineup until late April 2021, about 10 days before Knight was scheduled for trial. Prosecutors are required to turn over such evidence even though it hurts the prosecution’s case, the judge stated.

Lambert said he did not remember discussing the lineup with Cantalamessa, the lead prosecutor, but he was sure that he delivered evidence regarding the lineup to the prosecutor’s office soon afterward and said he was sure he provided prosecutors with a copy of the video of the interview.

But when he and Cantalamessa were discussing the case in late April and Lambert mentioned the lineup, Cantalamessa asked him, “What lineup are you taking about?” Lambert testified Friday.

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