WILKES-BARRE — Nearly six years after Sharon Shaughnessy was run over while crossing the street on a summer night, Megan Panowicz will stand trial this morning on hit-and-run charges in connection with the Kingston woman’s death.
If her father and the prosecutors don’t come to blows, that is.
Lawyer Robert Panowicz, who is representing his daughter together with attorneys Basil Russin and William Ruzzo, stood up in Luzerne County Court during a motions hearing Monday afternoon and shouted at Deputy Attorney General Clarke Madden, accusing him of telling “a bold-faced lie.”
“I’m going to object to that, vigorously,” Madden blurted out, trying to make himself heard over Robert Panowicz’s rising volume.
The bench trial before specially presiding Centre County Senior Judge Charles Brown hadn’t even begun, and the attorneys were at each other’s throats. And Brown quickly made it clear that he wasn’t going to stand for it.
“I am going to be controlling this case,” the judge interjected, his voice booming across the largely empty third-floor courtroom, silencing the lawyers.
“You can all show up tomorrow and have a fist fight and let me know who wins,” the judge said, pausing. “So don’t do this.”
If Brown does keep order, as promised, Megan Panowicz’s trial is expected to last until Wednesday, at least, and will include more than a dozen witnesses — including Panowicz herself, her lawyers said.
Panowicz, 29, is charged with a felony count of leaving the scene of an accident that caused the death of 32-year-old Shaughnessy on Aug. 27, 2008.
That charge carries a mandatory minimum sentence of one year behind bars.
Shaughnessy was crossing Wyoming Avenue near Pierce Street in Kingston when, authorities believe, she was first struck by a vehicle driven by Panowicz, and then by two additional cars driven by Rosemarie Chismar and Linda A. Giordano.
The state Office of Attorney General is prosecuting the case because Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis had worked with Panowicz’s father before taking office as DA in 2011.
In November, Brown tossed out a proposed mental insanity defense based on claims that Panowicz experienced “post traumatic stress” when she allegedly pulled to the side of Wyoming Avenue and saw Shaughnessy being struck by two other vehicles.
Panowicz’s trial, scheduled to begin Dec. 3, was continued indefinitely due to an appeal of Brown’s order to state Superior Court.
When the appeals court late in January rebuffed Panowicz, the AG’s office pushed for a trial date.
Last month, the AG’s office accused the defense of more delays, arguing that the Panowicz team was aiming for another attempt at an insanity defense by arguing Panowicz ran from the scene because she could do no additional good, and went to the police station the next morning to provide proof of financial responsibility.
Earlier this month, Brown issued an order limiting Megan Panowicz’s ability to present evidence of her mental condition as a defense, but not barring it altogether.
Jury trial waived
Monday brought another development. As a pool of potential jurors awaited their call to duty, Panowicz and her lawyers informed the judge that she wished to waive her right to a jury trial in favor of a trial-by-judge, putting her fate in Brown’s hands alone.
After questioning Panowicz on whether she understood the rights she was giving up — the defendant said she did — Brown granted the request, saying he believed the decision “was a good one” for both sides.
In brief remarks to a reporter afterward, defense attorney Ruzzo echoed that sentiment, saying the case involved “questions of law” that the defense felt a judge would be better positioned to assess than a jury.
Indeed, initial framing of such questions preceded the dispute that erupted between Robert Panowicz and Madden on Monday afternoon:
• The two sides appear poised to clash over the three impacts suffered by Shaughnessy, and whether they constitute one, two or three accidents, and whether Megan Panowicz bears ultimate responsibility. Hints of case law bolstering both positions emerged Monday.
“If it was two or three accidents, then the Commonwealth has to establish that the death of the individual was from the first accident, not the second or third,” Robert Panowicz said.
• Even before formal opening statements, Madden tried to chip away at the notion that Panowicz admitted to having left the scene and then trying to justify doing so. He also attacked the defense use of the term “substantial compliance” regarding the law and arguing the statute says a driver “in every event shall remain at the scene.”
That precipitated the clash, as Madden went on to ask what the consequences would be if drivers involved in such crashes simply decided they are free to leave the scene and “get sober.”
Robert Panowicz, who earlier noted that a witness will testify that his daughter had only consumed orange juice prior to the crash and often served as a designated driver, accused Madden of trying to insinuate alcohol use by Megan Panowicz in an effort to spread that idea to the media and public.
That was the “bold-faced lie” against which Robert Panowicz railed.
Proceedings are set to begin at 8:45 a.m.