ROYALTON — The words weren’t even out of the district judge’s mouth when attorney Shelley Centini suddenly wept and embraced her co-defendant, James Sulima, her lawyer, Al Flora, and her family on Wednesday.
Centini, 38, and Sulima, 49, a private investigator, were cleared of intimidating witnesses in the Hugo Selenski homicide case in Luzerne County and lying to a state grand jury when District Judge David Judy of Dauphin County dismissed all charges against them.
Judy did, however, forward four counts of intimidating witnesses to encourage misleading testimony, four counts of intimidating witnesses to withhold testimony and one count each of obstruction of justice and tampering with evidence against Selenski to Dauphin County Court.
Judy made his decision after hearing three hours of closing arguments from Selenski, Flora, Sulima’s attorney, Bill Ruzzo, and Deputy Attorney General Daniel Dye.
Wednesday’s proceeding was held after testimony was presented by five witnesses in the homicide case and Luzerne County Detective Lt. Gary Capitano on April 24.
“Had this case been sent up, it would have been a death nail for defense lawyers and it would have jeopardized the freedom we all hold so dear,” Flora said after he emerged with Centini from the courtroom.
That was Flora’s argument all along.
He said Centini and Sulima did nothing wrong when they met with Michael Shutlock, Joseph Pilcavage, Jason McEvoy and Joseph Jay Phillips at Rob’s Pub and Grub eatery in Larksville in July 2012.
A fifth witness in the homicide case, Carey Ann Bartoo, was visited at her Plains Township apartment by Centini.
Flora said defense attorneys have a legal right to interview witnesses, whether they are for the prosecution or the defense.
Selenski, Centini and Sulima were charged by the state Office of Attorney General in January after a grand jury approved a 13-page presentment. State prosecutors alleged Centini and Sulima gave hand-written letters by Selenski to the five witnesses they claimed Selenski wanted them to alter or change their testimony in the homicide case.
Flora and Ruzzo said it is no different with defense attorneys meeting with witnesses as law enforcement officials frequently do. Ruzzo said Centini and Sulima met with the witnesses at a public place rather than in a barricaded interview room of a police department or state police barracks being questioned by officers or troopers with badges and guns.
The attorneys said Selenski’s letters asked the witnesses what they remember on certain dates to determine if their memories differ from what was listed in multiple reports by investigators.
After the charges were filed, the District Attorney’s Office asked to have Centini and Sulima removed from defending Selenski on the homicide charges. Luzerne County Judge Fred Pierantoni III, who is presiding over the Selenski case, granted the request on Feb. 10.
Centini was court appointed to defend Selenski in January 2012. Records from Luzerne County indicate she earned more than $121,000 and Sulima earned nearly $30,000 on the Selenski case.
Flora and Ruzzo said the Attorney General’s Office should never have accepted an investigation referred by the Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office when Shutlock filed a complaint with Capitano about the letter he was given to read in July 2012. It wasn’t until August 2013 that Centini received a subpoena from the attorney general for the letters, Flora said.
Selenski’s letters have never been found.
Flora and Ruzzo said the letters contained “defense strategy,” noting if the five witnesses were allowed to keep them, the letters would have been turned over to the District Attorney’s Office.
“I’m surprised that the attorney general of our state would have even allowed this prosecution to commence,” Flora said. “And I think (Attorney General Kathleen Kane) has an obligation to look at this personally and to see the impact it had on (Centini) and the impact it had on the Selenski homicide case overall. This prosecution should not have been brought under any circumstance.
“I can tell you I am shocked that the district attorney of Luzerne County would have referred this matter to the Attorney General’s Office. To me, it shows the complete lack of experience in that office in dealing with matters like this. I have seen many situations like this over the years in Luzerne County where there has been allegations of minor overreaching by police, by assistant DAs and by defense lawyers, and it has never gone this far,” he said.
“Usually, the matter is addressed informally with the presiding judge and things are worked out. But for that office to refer this to the attorney general is outrageous, and it shows just how inexperienced that office is,” Flora said.
When asked if the charges against Centini were in retaliation for a contempt-of-court charge filed by Centini in May 2013 regarding the District Attorney’s Office obtaining Selenski’s mental-health history in violation of a judge’s order, Flora said he is led to believe that is true.
“In my view, I think there there is strong evidence to suggest that,” he said.
He said the witness-intimidation charges and the removal of Centini has “clearly placed the Selenski homicide case in serious jeopardy.”
“I don’t know how they will recover,” Flora said.
Ruzzo and Flora called the 13-page presentment that led to the charges against Centini and Sulima “outrageous.” Ruzzo said Dye presented “leading questions” to the 23-member grand jury.
“We had serous problems with the language of the grand jury presentment that the freedom that was taken by the prosecutor in this case and the language that was developed in the presentment that it read more like a fiction than a piece of law,” Flora said. “This should never had happened.”
Contacted later, District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis took issue with Flora’s assertions.
“Neither myself nor anyone else in my office will be deterred from the prosecution of crime by Mr. Flora’s self-serving ramblings,” Salavantis said. “My office will continue to pursue individuals committing crime whether civilians, attorneys, politicians or otherwise. And where a conflict exists, I will refer the matter to the appropriate authority.
“In this case, an independent agency and a grand jury found sufficient evidence to make an arrest,” Salavantis said. “I stand by my decision to refer this investigation to the attorney general and will wait for the last chapter to be written to see where the scales of justice settle on this matter.”
It was not immediately known if the Attorney General’s Office will refile charges against Centini and Sulima.
Selenski is charged in the flex-tie strangulation killings of Michael Kerkowski and Tammy Fassett in May 2002. Their bodies were unearthed from a shallow grave outside the Kingston Township house where Selenski lived exactly 11 years ago today, June 5, 2003.
Selenski is scheduled to return to Luzerne County Court on Friday on a request by his defense team, Edward Rymsza, Bernard J. Brown and Hugh C. Taylor, to continue the Nov. 12 homicide trial to 2015. Brown and Taylor replaced Centini.